You get the Obstructive Bureaucrat, who is just being a bit of a jobsworth and stopping something crucial from happening. And then you get the Beleaguered Bureaucrat.
The Beleaguered Bureaucrat would love to help you with your problems... if they weren't dealing with a dozen other equally important (in the bureaucrat's eyes) matters at the same time, usually while being shouted at for not being able to do five things at once. Basically, this is a character who is swamped with too much work whose performance (and stress level) is clearly suffering for it. If it's a main character, expect their stress at this to become a Running Gag. Can become a problem for heroes if they need something done by this character quickly.
The tropes: Beleaguered Bureaucrat, Department of Child Disservices, and Social Services Does Not Exist; overlap since they all involve the same problems. The employees are often overworked, underpaid, lack resources, and suffer the publicís wrath. They then turn into the Obstructive Bureaucrat and use Bothering by the Book to slow down the workload or get revenge on the people who make unreasonable demands.
Signs that you are dealing with this character are:
They will typically be buried, sometimes literally, under waves of red tape and paper work. Expect every comic bureaucrat related trope to be in full force. If on the phone, they will either be talking very quickly or getting yelled at. Bonus points in animation if they are trying to answer two phones at once.
They will constantly look frazzled and will usually be short tempered even after work. This is often played quite seriously. (One may insist on an Ordered Apology by the wronged party to the person who injured, just to keep things moving.)
If its the king who is beleaguered, this is one way an Evil Chancellor may get into power. The chancellor offers to do some of the work for the king and the grateful leader allows more and more of the responsibility of running the country to get shifted to the chancellor until soon the chancellor is running more of the country than the king is. And of course, the king never believes anyone who tells him about the abuses of power or the scheming of the chancellor against the throne: to the king, the chancellor is a great guy who has made his job much easier and whom he trusts absolutely.
This trope is quite closely related to Hanlon's Razor. Don't always assume that people in office work or government aren't managing things properly because they're corrupt or malicious. They may simply have way too much work on their hands, and not have the skills or resources to deal with them. This trope is liable to political use, as well, with a distinct undertone of "they don't have the skills and resources to deal with their workload because the people paying *cough* the taxpayers who directly or indirectly rely on these bureaucrats *cough* are too cheap to pay for them." (Whether this is true or not is something we will not discuss; suffice it to say that works that use this trope usually bring this perspective.)
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The first nine chapters of Daily Life with Monster Girl portray Ms. Smith as lazy and uncaring about the constant onslaught of problems she creates for Kimihito by dumping monster girl after monster girl on him without his permission. She clarifies just how overworked she is with no raise in pay in chapter ten, then chapter eleven is her day in the limelight where you see one example of the variety of crap she has to put up with.
Mayura Ichikawa of Best Student Council. She's constantly overstressed due to having to balance the Best Student Council's budget, when they spend recklessly without informing her.
Tony Stark during his time as the Director of SHIELD had some serious aspects of this. Especially during the Knauf's run.
Steve Epting wrote him like this, constantly exhausted and at one or two points thinking about relapsing back into alcohol addiction.
When Clark Kent was a television reporter in the 70's, the director of the evening newscast was an antacid-popping, constantly stressed-out guy named Josh Coyle. The fact that Clark would frequently appear just a split second before the broadcast or secretly vanish to do super-heroing during commercial breaks played even more merry havoc with the guy's nerves.
The French foreign affairs minister's staff in Quai D Orsay collectively qualifies.
In The New Retcons Elly Patterson of For Better or for Worse goes insane. When family members try to get her committed to get treatment, the law says they can't do it unless the husband gives consent (which John refuses to do cause he thinks it would make him look bad) or unless she becomes a danger to herself or society. The latter happens when she kidnaps a boy thinking he's Michael's childhood friend.
Frank Herbert's Jorj X. McKie stories. McKie is a member of the Bureau of Sabotage (BuSab), whose job it is to make every efficient government worker a Beleaguered Bureaucrat, in order to prevent the ConSentiency government from working too fast and going out of control.
Ponder Stibbons, of Discworld's Unseen University, is the only wizard who cares much about anything besides his next meal, leaving him saddled with dozens of jobs. This leads him to a mini-CMOA (at least mini by Disc standards) when he interrupts the feuding Archchancellors of two magical universities by saying that his various posts give him enough votes on the University Council to control it.
The Lamplighter-Marshal in D.M. Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo series is this; it is telling that his first on-screen appearance has him running all about his domain having been sent to the wrong place by a (probably malicious) clerk. Otherwise, however, he's a perfectly Reasonable Authority Figureuntil he's called away as part of a power-play by his Evil Chancellor, who just happens to be a genuine Obstructive Bureaucrat in charge of a legion of Obstructive Bureaucrats. Not quite the man you want in charge of what is effectively a military frontier.
Sir John Busby tries his best, but once the proverbial hits the fan, he can't really keep up with the volume of Wardens' reports, and his usual efficiency takes a nose dive.
In Transformers: TransTech, the red-tape-happy Axiom Nexus is full of bureaucrats, including this sort. In "Withered Hope" in particular, the inability of an overworked and underpaid bureaucrat to help the GoBots (yes, you read that right) find among the thousands of others waiting to be processed through Customs the rogue scientist that escaped from their group, is what sets all their problems in motion.
A Beleaguered Bureaucrat (in charge of "Xeno-Cultural Gestalt Clearance", i.e., relations with extraterrestrials) is the protagonist of the short story "Birth of A Salesman" by James Tiptree, Jr.
The Honorverse has its fair share. Probably the most notable is Dame Estelle Matsuko, later Baroness Medusa, who first appears in the first book of the series, On Basilisk Station, as the Resident Commissioner for the Basilisk System. As a result of being criminally understaffed and overworked, she's not exactly in the best of moods most of the time — and the fact that the senior Navy officer assigned to the system is going out of his way to make her life hell doesn't help. When Honor Harrington herself is assigned to the system, Dame Estelle finds herself stunned to actually be working with an officer willing to cooperate with her for once — but then they discover that an illegal drug is being sold to the Medusan natives from offworld, which gives her not so much a 'headache' as an 'excruciating migraine'. Somehow she manages to hold everything together, but at no small cost to her temper. Then, roughly a dozen books later, she reappears and gets promoted; in The Shadow of Saganami and its sequels, she's responsible for not one star system, but a dozen. Fortunately, she has a lot more people on her side this time.
The Hoons, one of several species of Obstructive Bureaucrats in the Uplift series, are thoroughly unhappy with their lot in Galactic life. A few centuries ago a group of Hoons decided to ditch their technology and live simple lives as sailors of wooden ships on Jijo. In the second trilogy a young Jijoan Hoon goes back into space to teach his Galactic cousins their way of life, he's treated almost as a messiah.
Bernard wades into this territory every now and then; the most notable examples are "The Economy Drive," where he is one of the few DAA staffers left after Hacker attempts an ill-considered economy drive, and "A Diplomatic Incident," where he is tasked with the organisation of Hacker's predecessor's funeral.
In large part this seems to be why Mark Brendanawicz leaves at the end of season 2.
Dr. Lisa Cuddy of House constantly gives the impression that she has far too much on her plate, and in her A Day in the Limelight episode "5 to 9," this impression is confirmed with a vengeance, showing that the titular physician, for all the antagonism he gives Cuddy, is only about 50% of her problems.
A general example: Some of the more sympathetic portrayals of social workers or probation/parole officers can fall under this: When called out on that one mistake or oversight that leads to the Victim of the Week's demise, they invariably point out the huge number of cases that the desperately understaffed office is saddled with and the fact that they can't be in two places at once. Which, sadly, tends to be Truth in Television in more than a few cities.
The 1970s New Zealand stage show, and later 1980s TV sitcom, Gliding On parodied this trope.
Norman Briggs, the hospital administrator in Diagnosis: Murder, initially came across as an Obstructive Bureaucrat, but in later episodes revealed that he genuinely cared about Community General, and was caught between the needs of the hospital and the realities of the economy. In one of his last episodes before being Put On The Bus, he pulled out all the stops, including some veiled blackmail, to prevent a Corrupt Corporate Executive from buying Community General with the express purpose of closing the hospital.
On Grey's Anatomy this is the fate of any of the doctors who get promoted to an administrative position. Dr. Webber finally gets to enjoy himself after he steps down as Chief of Surgery. Derek resigns as Chief because he cannot handle the bureaucracy involved. Owen runs himself rugged trying to stop the hospital from closing down due to a lawsuit. Meredith, Cristina and Callie experience this when they become co-owners of the hospital and have to decide which departments and pet projects should get funding. Jackson finds himself on the hospitals board of directors due to Nepotism and becomes extremely frustrated when the demands of the position prevent him from doing any actual work as a doctor.
In GURPSTravellerInterstellar Wars we are told that the Vilani Imperium was deliberately organized to make the Emperor this. The idea was that there would be less volatility if everything was slowed down.
Paranoia more typically features the Obstructive version, but these can appear as well.
In the Broken Steel DLC for Fallout 3, Bigsley, the Brotherhood scribe in charge of administrating Project Purity and the water distribution campaign can be accurately described as this. He's got reports coming in at all hours, and his office is pretty much stacked with files and forms from wall to wall. If you talk to him, he's kinda snippy towards you and blames you for his current workload; you know, cause you're responsible for the damn purifier being completed and turned on in the first place.
The fact that he's got practically no resources at his disposal (bottling station? We just dip it under and it goes glub-glub-glub), and that all his subordinates are wholly incompetent scribe rejects, his frustration and his falling asleep at his desk are understandable.
He himself is a scribe reject, having irked the proctors (leaders) of all three scribe orders in the Citadel in some manner or other.
Papers, Please casts the player as one. They take the role of a border inspector who must process immigrants quickly but accurately to get enough money to support his family.
Latchkey Kingdom The chancellor, who has to deal with a king who is willing to abdicate his throne to the first man who says he can do a better job.
Many, many heads of government run into this problem. One indicator of a strong leader is how good an administrator they are.
To see proof of this, one just simply has to look at the photos of a person before and after they took office. The amount that people in high offices age - often far more aging than should be possible in the time they were in office - is astounding.
Busy libraries can give this impression. If you see a long snake-like queue, it's probably best not to bother the staff about that book you want to locate. They're probably praying for their next tea break.
As mentioned above, social workers, parole officers, other public officials and civil servants, and even nurses and doctors, can fall victim to this trope. There's been records of failings being almost wholly down to staff shortages and poor logistics putting too much work on too few people.
A large number of judicial procedural rules are made in the interests of "judicial economy": that is, reducing the number of cases that get adjudicated. The most famous are probably the strict rules for filing briefs in courts: the brief can't be longer than a certain number of pages or lines, the cover sheet has to be in the correct format and in the correct color, and it has to be turned in before a certain time. Mess up any of these, and your case will be dismissed—and if you miss a filing deadline, it will be dismissed with prejudice, i.e. you won't be able to file again (a lawyer who does this is likely to be sued for malpractice, by the way, and if it's a paralegal who fucked it up, they will be fired, blacklisted by every non-sleazy law firm, and quite possibly held liable for the damages from said malpractice suit if it was really egregious). Also, if you're practicing in the United States, did we mention that thanks to federalism, each state andthe District of Columbiaand each territory and the federal government has its own courts with its own rules that you have to keep straight in your head and if you follow the wrong ones God help you?Example Suppose there's a Phillies game in Philly and a Phillies fan punches a fan of the visiting team in the face (which is rather a likely occurrence, if you know anything about Philly sports fans). If the guy who got punched was a Pirates fan from Pittsburgh, he would have to file his lawsuit (for battery) in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, which has its own format and which, by the way, you have to submit your papers before the office closes (officially at 5:00 PM, but unofficially at 4:30); if you have a time-limited motion to submit, it'd better be ready by then. However, if the guy who got punched is a Mets fan from Trenton, he has the option of filing suit in federal court—the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, to be exact—which has a different format and where you have until midnight to submit your files electronically if the clock is ticking. This is despite the fact that Pittsburgh is an order of magnitude further from Philadelphia than Trenton (300 miles vs. 30 miles)—what counts is it's different states. Please note, however, that in both cases, there is no difference in the substantive law applied: both the Court of Common Pleas and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania will be applying Pennsylvania's law on battery to inform the idiot Phillies fan that he will have to pay the Pirates or Mets fan for damages. As dickish as they sound, they help the courts operate more efficiently and gauge the lawyers' diligence and respect for the rules.
Italy managed to combine this with Vast Bureaucracy: there's a large number of bureaucratic agencies, sometimes dealing with the same thing (for example, law enforcement is dealt by eight different forces, two of which actually being the grouping of the various provincial and local police forces), but most of them are understaffed in the departments that actually deal with the citizens, and the one that isn't, the judiciary-law enforcement apparate, is still overworked due the Italians suing each other for the stupidest reasons (a typical suit is one of a woman suing her daughter in law for not using the mother in law's family recipe for a particular dish).note Granted, cooking is Serious Business in Italy, but not that serious.