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"I'm sorry, but you'll need to see Mr. W of Department X in Division Y of Agency Z."
"The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.
Various bureaucracies are involved at least a little bit in nearly every facet of our lives. Most of the time it's a background entity, such as the government keeping the food safe and the roads repaired and so on. But sometimes, a person needs to interact with it a little more directly, and that's where this trope comes in. As the bureaucracy grew and took on new responsibilities, it created entities within itself to do the work. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they get nested within each other, like a Matryoshka doll. And sometimes the individuals within them just don't want to deal with your problem, or the paperwork to fix it, and pass you off to the next poor, overworked soul. At these times you may realize that you are dealing with a vast, formless entity, with no one you can talk to directly in charge.
Notorious for the Inherent in the System
way that while no one you deal with is personally evil, nonetheless the net effect is horrific.
May have obstructive bureaucrats
, but not necessary; there are just a large number of bureaucrats that are mostly just normal people doing their jobs. The Beleaguered Bureaucrat
often works here. Rarely, if you are lucky, you can find the Badass Bureaucrat
. May be a contributing factor to Jurisdiction Friction
. Compare For Inconvenience, Press "1"
and Pen-Pushing President
open/close all folders
- The Big Finish Doctor Who audio Caerdroia features one of these. They have at least two similarly-named departments related to writing utensils (which the Doctor discovers when he gets the name of one department slightly wrong, and is told that's a different department), and the Doctor is told he must visit one of these departments in order to get permission to borrow a pencil. When he asks irritably whether anyone at all can help him, he's told to consult the Rhetorical or Genuine Questions Office. To make matters worse, the whole place is apparently staffed by Inexplicably Identical Individuals — multiple copies of the same Welshman, and due to renovations they've taken the signs off all the doors.
- In Astérix the Legionary, Asterix goes to the the Roman army headquarters to inquire about a soldier. He's shunted from department to department, until giving in and beating the crap out of the first employee he'd met for information.
Films — Animated
- Shows up in the animated movie The Twelve Tasks of Asterix: Asterix and Obelix need to get "Permit A-38" from a bureaucratic agency, know as "The House That Drives You Mad", a Roman bureaucratic office so convoluted it does Exactly What It Says on the Tin. And our heroes comes close to it too, after fruitlessly going up and down stairs, being informed that the form you need doesn't exist/is the wrong color, the person you need to consult with is out to lunch, and so forth for hours. The method Asterix uses to win is brilliant in its simplicity. He turns the bureaucracy against itself: he asks for "Permit A-39", which doesn't exist, but the employees try to find it anyway, exposing the weaknesses of a system where everyone has a task but doesn't know how the rest works. In the end, the employees themselves go mad, and the head of the department gives him Permit A-38 just to get rid of him.
Films — Live-Action
- In the end credits of Quantum of Solace, as with many films, there was a list of thank you's to the agencies in various countries that were dealt with during production. Panama takes two lines, Mexico one, Chile one, the United Kingdom one... and Italy 14.
- The entire plot and setting of Brazil revolves around a Vast Bureaucracy.
- Steven Soderbergh's Kafka invokes this, based on the various bureaucracies in Kafka's own writing.
- In The Double, Simon is found to be missing from the office computer system, and is told that he does not exist as a result. To get back into the system, he needs a worker card, which he can't get without being in the system.
- The Vogons in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy have a society that's practically made of this.
- Franz Kafka's novel The Castle is a classic example, which serves as the inspiration for this News Parody report from The Onion News Network.
- The Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter, with fully staffed departments for justice, research, non-human relations, maintaining the masquerade, transport, sports, international relations, totaling at least 600 employees (the number of ministry people that built the Qudditch Stadium in Goblet of Fire, and that is a very small fraction of the ministry workforce) ruling over a nation of at most (according to the best fandom estimation) 10,000 people, or 1 bureaucrat per 17 civilians, at minimum.
- The Red Tape War attempts to surpass the Vogons by having not one, but three galaxy-spanning bureaucracies filled with Obstructive Bureaucrats.
- Devastatingly satirized in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit with the "Circumlocution Office", a massive government agency run by the Tite Barnacle family. Everything the government does must be approved by the Circumlocution Office, because they are the foremost at understanding the guiding bureaucratic principle of "How Not To Do It."
- As a Deconstruction of many Cyberpunk tropes, Snow Crash uses this: the since most of the territory of the United States is now run by individual franchises, the U.S. government has become a bureaucracy that serves no purpose except to keep being a bureaucracy. It's confined to its own sprawling mass of office complexes, called 'Fedland'.
- Terran Trade Authority has a variant where it is presented simply as what is logically necessitated by the situation — in the chronologically later stories, the eponymous Authority is extremely vast (enough for its headquarters to have a major forest surrounding it for the express purpose of making paper so they don't have to import quite as many tons each week) by our standards simply because it is an interstellar bureaucracy covering several planets and outposts (whereas the largest we have are ones covering most of a continent).
- In The Stormlight Archive the country of Azir is famous for its obsession with paperwork. When a thief breaks into the palace and pretends to be someone's servant sent to get cake, she's treated to a rant about how dietary requests are supposed to be submitted in advance with the appropriate forms. When a man intends to execute a 13-year old for trespass and theft, they stand aside, unable to argue because he did, after all, fill out the correct paperwork to do it. On the other hand, while an assassin murders rulers across the world and much of it descends into chaos and civil war as factions vie for the throne, the most powerful people in Azir are sitting peacefully around a table, worriedly and earnestly discussing the best options for the country. The idea of rioting is Azir is dismissed as "too much paperwork."
- Parodied in The Beiderbecke Affair with a civil service building whose door numbering is constantly changed, so there's virtually no chance of ever finding the same department or person twice.
- In Young Indiana Jones, much of the "Prague, August 1917"/"Espionage Escapades, part 2" episode sees Indy encountering an insane Kafkaesque bureaucracy when all he wants is to get a phone installed. Kafka himself later shows up to help Indy out.
- On JAG this tropes comes in two different flavors. If concerning the Navy and Marine Corps, the vast bureaucracy, which it is, will often be portrayed in a positive and/or neutral sense. If concerning any other service or another non-military agency the negatives will be accentuated.
- Wikipedia's growth has slowed as of late for multiple reasons, but the related one is an immense behind the scenes bureaucracy with reams of Wikispeak that few new members can penetrate and casual editors can get driven off by, since they may spend half an hour writing an entry only to have it deleted by someone spouting legalese they don't know the terms to counter.
- Paranoia runs on this. Or, to be more accurate, totters shakily along the edge of the catastrophe curve on this.
- The Administratum in Warhammer 40,000 is described in this manner, to the point that in the Dark Heresy RPG there is a civil war brewing within it over how to store all the paperwork. It's actually so bad that the Imperium can lose an entire sector of territory without anyone in the Administratum noticing.
- Indeed, with the Ecclesiarchy (Imperial Church) no better, the Guard an ill-run farce and the Navigators more or less running their own affairs, it could be said that the sole organization run properly in the Imperium is the autonomous Imperial Inquisition - and as its purpose is to purge the Administratum and Ecclesiarchy (all the demon-killing is done by one department) it all devolves into a bloody vicious circle.
- Reality itself runs on this in Exalted, where the natural order of things is maintained by the gods of the sprawling, increasingly run-down Celestial Bureaucracy.
- Not to mention the one in Creation. The Scarlet Empress deliberately made sure that nothing noteworthy was easy to accomplish. Rival families and organizations within the Scarlet Empire were pitted against one another in order to keep them from organizing against the Empress and she made sure the Empress herself (not just the office) was utterly indispensable. So when she disappeared, the entire Empire almost immediately began falling apart.
- The Azorius Guild in the Ravnica setting of Magic: The Gathering is this. Just take a look at their acceptance letter◊.
- The Infocom text adventure Bureaucracy, designed by Douglas Adams. Your 'health' is measured by your blood pressure, and if it gets too high you die from an aneurysm.
- In Marathon, the cripplingly bureaucratic Pfhor follow officially marked orders to the letter, no matter how counter-productive or suicidal. This is strongly demonstrated in Infinity, when the crew of a Pfhor ship obeys a fraudulent order that instructs them to summarily execute the higher ranking officers on board. The same order also forbids said officers from surrendering peacefully to be executed.
- Displayed prominently in Backtrace, where the intergovernmental councils and foundations and such are so thick with such varying rules and regulations that it is next to impossible to do much of anything without breaking some kind of red tape, and where if you do break red tape, it is nearly impossible to understand exactly which red tape you broke. And then, considering the numerous exceptions to rules given by other rules, one can never be sure whether any red tape has been broken in the first place.
- The entirety of Nephilopolis runs on this in Dresden Codak. There are even departments with which you register your crimes. And divisions dedicated to undermining the other divisions.
- The disastrous incident at Waco, Texas, in 1993 largely resulted from confusion and bickering between the federal agencies conducting the siege.
- The New York Times did a special report on the U.S. intelligence community and reported that it is a huge vast bureaucracy in which literally no one knows about everything that is going on, which means that agencies or even different sections of the same entity periodically bumble into each other as they attempt to serve the national interest in their own way.
- The U.S. military-industrial complex.
- Soviet Union was as a whole mired in red tape, as the government was in charge of everything, including science, commerce, and industry, making the bureaucracy more vast and impenetrable than anything that's come before or since.
- Nazi Germany was built in such a way that various services were at each others throats all the time, so that no one of them would try to stage a coup against Hitler. Obviously, it didn't work out well.