Only Anecdotal

No numbers, just stories

Archive for November 2015

Thanksgiving

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I was recently reminded of a quote attributed to C.S. Lewis: “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes but, when we look back everything is different?”

This quote has reminded me, in very real and tangible ways, of my own gratitude, the thanks that I owe to so many people and circumstances in my life. My children, my friends, my community.

In the last two weeks, we have indeed seen enormous changes, too, perhaps the culmination of so many small steps. Not all do I face with gratitude. I still cannot fathom the tragedy in Paris. Not yet. Not sure I ever want to.

But other changes in life I have considered, and am right now as I contemplate the last year and a half from a slightly more philosophical viewpoint, thinking over the perspective I gained moving from one world to another.

When I began working at the Consulate, the manager who hired me had described the role as “social services for Canadians in the US”. This was largely true, and as I saw it then, largely what I had been doing in the field–more like the trenches–for several years prior. I had worked around illness then, and disability, and dire situations that were often chronic; though, when I saw them, the need was indeed critical. I held a hand, shared a pot of tea, sat and listened, all the while wishing for a figurative hose to put out fires that had often smouldered for years before erupting in flame. But too often, my only defence for my clients was a squirt gun, at best, and always, always,  I wished for a magic wand.

I discovered quickly that a few things were quite different in the consular world. First of all, I cannot speak for the whole of the Canadian government, but from the start (my interview featured a test, by golly), it was clear to me that excellence was an expectation. That is it. You prove yourself, then keep working at that standard. I hit a huge learning curve of regulations and details, and I simply had to know them. I never even questioned that, and I enjoyed the challenge.

This had always been true, but now, rather than simply holding this knowledge as advantageous in my work, I felt the weight of responsibility much more. Was it the security clearance? Was it the various exams, and permissions, and processes? Was it the diplomatic cachet? Bilingualism? I am not sure, except that the culture supported high quality work. It made me  happy, too, to feel I was rewarded in perhaps subtle ways, and most of all from our clients, for giving it my all.

The above C.S. Lewis quote came from my manager, who spoke at a lovely party held on my last day at the Consulate. My term has ended there, and staff who had been on leave have all made their ways back into the work I had the great opportunity to live in depth. I will miss everyone. There were some very long snowy days riding the commuter rail, days when I was first learning all the various details of creating a document that for my entire life has been my symbol of freedom and adventure… and became as I saw it also a very real ticket to access, connection, and security. Winter. The very real lack of control we have over so many aspects of life on earth, and the many, many ways we learn to maneuver and thrive and love in spite of it, sometimes because of it. It was about the same everyday, in most ways. A few surprises, but the same walk to the station, people I met along the way, same roads, same tracks, the same gorgeous view of the South End, and the same kind faces who greeted me and shared the space everyday. It became natural after a while, as it does, and fun, and amazingly satisfying when there was a problem, a puzzle to work out, and we could do something truly meaningful, even small.

But now, looking back at where this all started, I see that Lewis was right. Everything truly is different.

And it continues, and onward to the next adventures, projects, my great desire to connect, to hear more stories and meet more people, to create something beautiful, useful, better in this imperfect, fabulous world. It is a wonderful life. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

Written by Only Anecdotal

24 Nov 2015 at 2:57pm

In Defense of Bureaucracy

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I have surprised my own self with the title of this little piece.

I hate when rules bog people down, and make it next-to-impossible to get anything done. I hate rules even more when they seem created to keep people out, rather than to devise a logical way to let them in.

I think about that question of entry, access, everyday. As I said in my last article, I may be feeling optimistic by an extraordinary ability in my present job to gain access to needed paperwork, documents–most often a passport. But it is a powerful thing, a passport, granting permission to enter, to cross, to leave.

My last jobs have not been so easy in this respect. Canadian passports require an extraordinary number of checks, I think–it often seems to surprise people here in the United States, who are not so accustomed to actual reference checks, or very specific photo requirements. A MassHealth application, though, requires a lot of documentation, as does a SNAP application for food stamps. There may well be no reference checks, but the systems in these two institutions are often kept ambiguous by overwhelmed staff who are most likely paid not enough to meet the high standards of customer service that are absolutely obligatory to meet the need well. Are there examinations that TANF employees must pass to have access to a database? I do not think so. Does MassHealth go beyond an initial training period to verify that employees really do understand their responsibilities, as well as their limitations? I am quite sure this is impossible.

And yet, when immersed in the trenches of people in need, we learn a lot. We learn, for example, that recipients of Supplementary Security Income (SSI) through Social Security automatically receive MassHealth Standard. We learn that permanent residents who are entitled to MassHealth nonetheless cannot receive all benefits for five full years–and this can be devastating to individuals with disabilities who are in need of long-term services and supports. We learn that immigrants who do not have green card status may well receive no or very few MassHealth benefits at all… and it is hard not to advise a parent, for example, to apply for permanent residency, for example, for their children who need more than a safety net.

The only problem with this sort of trench-learning is that sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes we have heard enough to make ourselves dangerous, and assume that the understanding we have gained in our own bureaucracy has made us experts in all others. We would do so better to embrace the complexities and build relationships with our expert colleagues in other systems. But this seems a difficult concept to achieve.

Now… I know I seem to be straying from my original defence. Do I like monotonous paperwork, and complicated regulation? Well, no. Hell no. But then, I think about it a bit more… The rules sometimes are complex from the start, due to the legislation that created the program. But really, this is rarely the case. More often, I believe, the system becomes more complicated as we consider the individual within it. We consider just one person who does not fit a certain mold, but still needs something, and we make an exception. Complication #1. Another individual happens into the system, and needs something else. Complication #2. An individual to whom complication #1 applies has other resources that cancel the real need for the program in question: complication #3. And so it goes. A community complains about the high level of X, and we face complication #4, 5, and 6, sometimes all at once. It is easy to create institutions, and we must create them, I believe. But making them fair is even more essential. And this is where the bureaucracy begins. It is a real shame when we do not expect excellence in our public servants’ understanding and administering of this bureaucracy. Perhaps if we had that, these systems would not have such a terrible reputation.

I do believe that most people who work in these systems want to be helpful. In a customer service-oriented environment, “making a difference” is the true motivation for most employees. Hard to say what happens in translation there. A crappy database? Bad management? An utterly impossibly large number of clients to handle with that crappy database? Rules that are created more to micromanage underpaid employees than to give employees tools to help clients? Who knows?

But I think of the last week, for example. A woman who may have been considered quite foreign in appearance arrived at our office requesting assistance with her children’s Canadian passport applications. As I reviewed her documents, I asked her a bit more about her children, and their citizenship, to see if they had other documents for travel. They were Canadians, yes, born there. The parents were not. The parents were, in fact, US citizens who had lived abroad for years. They had adapted the lifestyle and customs of another country, and came back to North America to study, work, research. But both parents were born in the US.

The mother told me that she wanted MassHealth for her children, and was instructed by a MassHealth agent to apply for permanent residency for them. Children of US-born citizens.

The children, in reality, ARE US citizens. They need proof of citizenship, not permanent residency.

The cost of green card applications is enormous. The mother later took my advice to verify her children’s status with an agent at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services office. She learned, first, that her permanent residency application fees would not be refunded. She learned also that she did not have to resubmit paperwork for proof of her children’s US citizenship. Finally, she learned that her children were US citizens–yes! it was true! Upon receipt of their US citizenship certificates, they will be entitled to all privileges as American citizens, and without a five-year wait for full benefits under MassHealth.

In the meanwhile, I encouraged her to contact MassHealth once more. Unfortunately, in so many bureaucracies, the individual in need does not have access to an individual within the system. So, reaching anything more than a badge number or the next available staff is nearly impossible. I suggested that she could try going to a community health center, where an employee could access MassHealth as a professional, and perhaps find something more through that gateway… Another layer here to that system–that virtual gateway accesible to whom?? To hospitals.. to community health centers… to some provider agencies, advocacy agencies. It is a difficult system, fluid, and not smooth to sail. I hope her children can get what they need quickly here. They are entitled to it.

I defend bureaucracy, though I understand why we hate it. We hate it, because it is so hard to navigate through institutions that veer from their frameworks to try to be fair to all. We hate it, quite rightly, because it sometimes IS ridiculous, and more focused on preventing fraud than on the original mission. But try we must, and understand we must.

For, our understanding, in reality, is understanding the very complexity of our humanity, and the responsibilities of our government to provide fair treatment to the human beings who depend on it.

And do not be fooled by notions of self-sufficiency: we ALL depend on our government to do things for us. And we all are only human.

Written by Only Anecdotal

3 Nov 2015 at 8:51pm

Posted in advocacy