When one of D’s colleagues quipped that the most important thing he learned in training was how to fill out forms expeditiously, he was only half joking. In fact, one of the biggest drawbacks to the Foreign Service lifestyle is that by joining the diplomatic corps we have agreed to simultaneously submit our lives to the regulations of two different bureaucracies. Years of travel have conditioned us to expect incomprehensible rules, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and senseless delays from foreign governments, especially from those that consistently rank low on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. Encountering the same red tape from our own government, however, always feels like a letdown.
For instance, when we were told that it would take two months to get the title for our car, we mentally prepared ourselves to wait four, and were unperturbed when it took six. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised that we received it just before New Year’s, as the majority of Kenya’s government workers were on vacation until this week. At any rate, it took longer to hang a hammock in our backyard. The facilities maintenance crew that came to drill holes and hang things in our house asked us to put in a separate e-services request for the hammock, promising to come back with the right tools the next day. The problem with e-services, unfortunately, is that putting in a request is often not enough to get something done, even when the request is approved. D submitted the online form and it languished in digital purgatory for the better part of two months until the request was denied because of, as D found out from talking with the new facilities supervisor, safety reasons. It took D half a dozen conversations to get the decision reversed and another month to get the hammock hung.
The issue with bureaucracy is that the proliferation of regulations leaves very little room for human decision-making. For example, a few weeks before Christmas, D received an email that the dog food we had ordered exceeded the dimensions for non-bulk shipments and that we would be charged an obscene amount to ship it to Nairobi. This seemed odd as we had ordered the same dog food twice before and it had been shipped to us without a problem. Turns out that the dog food was sent in two boxes that together were just over the volume limit. We asked that the package be returned and then called the vendor to ask that the boxes be sent separately. To our surprise, ten days later D received an identical bulk shipment notification. The boxes had been packaged separately, addressed separately, and sent separately, but because they arrived at the warehouse on the same day, they were still counted as a bulk shipment. D called the warehouse supervisor in Washington, who grudgingly agreed to release the boxes for trans-shipment in view of the holiday season, but cautioned that next time the boxes should be sent several days apart so that they don’t arrive at the warehouse together.