Bernard: CBE, Minister.
Bernard: Can't Be Everywhere.
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 or similar problems. The employees are often overworked, underpaid, lack resources, and suffer the publics 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:
- When told "This is serious!" or even "This is a Matter of Life and Death!" they will snap "Yes, and so are the other dozen things I'm expected to do today." If not, "Everyone says that."
- 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 it's 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 subject 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, the taxpayers who directly or indirectly rely on these bureaucrats, are too cheap to pay for them." (Suffice it to say that works that use this trope usually bring this perspective.)
- 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.
- The first nine chapters of Monster Musume 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.
- In The Saint's Magic Power Is Omnipotent, King Siegfried is the absolute monarch of the kingdom of Salutania. The entire country is beset by monsters and monster-producing miasma that is rapidly outpacing regular humans' ability to control them; the Saint that is supposed to appear to save them has not, necessitating a risky ancient ritual only meant to be used once; and supplies, industries, and civilian lives are being threatened, bringing the society ever closer to the brink of collapse. This is not even involving the protagonist, Sei, the antics of his first son, Prince Kyle, or the sheer amount of politics and factions he has to navigate and appease to keep everything together for as long as it can.
- Sensei No Susume reveals that God became one for humanity. Trying to guide them well and help them with their problems became overwhelming because of the sheer number of humans and problems.
- Iron Man: Tony Stark during his time as the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. 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.
- Superman: When Clark Kent was a television reporter in the '70s, 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.
- 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.
- Most of the cast of The Equestrian Civil Service Series.
- Pencil Pusher in Flash Fog starts out as this, though he seems to be transforming into a Badass Bureaucrat.
- Princess Celestia herself embodies the royal variant in Green. Approving all policies and cases at court worked well enough back when the country was small enough for one pony to handle the workload, but the stagnancy of having done everything basically the same way for centuries has prevented her from enacting any meaningful reforms. She actually views being de-powered halfway through the story as something of a blessing, since Luna is not as bound by tradition and a stint as sole regnant Princess would let Luna implement meaningful reforms decentralizing the country's government and making it far easier to manage.
- Princess Luna's personal assistant Midnight Oil is an example of this as well. Keeping track of a Princess who would rather party than reign is hard enough, but then Celestia is de-powered and appoints him her Regent in her absence. Fortunately, this puts him in the perfect position to start implementing the reforms he and Celestia have talked about making for years. Unfortunately, it's very much an uphill battle and he was hugely overworked to begin with.
- This is the source of the troubles of the eponymous protagonist of Banana Joe: Joe has traded in bananas for his village without a license for years, and when the police is informed by the men of the local gangster boss Torsillo (as he has plans on his village and finds more practical to get rid of him with legal means) they have to impound his boat and cargo until he gets a license and the police chief instructs him exactly on what to do, even to go to the archbishopric to get a copy of his baptism certificate to get around the lack of a birth certificate keeping him from getting an ID... Except the archbishopric suffered a fire years earlier and they don't have his baptism certificate anymore, and the only other way to get his birth certificate would be to produce the ID he cannot have without a birth certificate.
- There's another way to get an ID, and thus get back on track to have the license, namely military service... Thus turning the local Drill Sergeant Nasty into one, as Joe is too naive and unexperienced of things outside his village to properly understand his orders and strong and large enough to push the messes on him by complete accident.
- The Blind Side features a wealthy nonworking white woman chewing out an overworked social worker for not paying extra attention to the one poor kid she ever was concerned about (because he can play football for her alma mater) and she is portrayed as the good guy in this scene.
- In Brazil, Sam Lowry has to put up with Obstructive Bureaucrats all around and above him, particularly after he attempts to correct a typo that caused the Ministry of Information he works for to make a wrongful arrest.
- 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 Figure until 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.
- The IRS recruiter in Chicago in The Pale King.
- 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.
- The Stormlight Archive: The Azish spend most of their time annoyed at how every other culture on the planet refuses to understand the importance of paperwork. They have forms for everything from executions, coming out as gay, requisitioning snacks, taxing smugglers, and catching people stealing from smugglers when you are trying to tax them. Despite how complex their system is, it should be noted that their system works, as Azir is actually an empire made of a confederation of smaller states that is quite stable compared to a lot of the rest of the world. In Oathbringer the rest of the world is falling apart after the Parshmen slaves regain their sapience. They generally behave as the people living in the respective nations do, so Thaylen Parshmen steal and sail off in ships, Alethi Parshmen rallying into an army, and the Azish Parshmen.... lobby the government for back pay from their time as slaves. Even better, the Azish government is actually actively negotiating with them to make it work.
- Just one of Jim Hacker's many problems in Yes, Minister. His woes regarding this trope continue in the sequel, Yes, Prime Minister.
- 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 Star Trek, Starfleet Command sometimes give the impression of being somewhere between this and Obstructive Bureaucrat.
- The entire point of Parks and Recreation. Laid out clearly in the Season 2 episode "Christmas Scandal," where the office divides up Leslie Knope's schedule and realizes exactly how busy she is.
- 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.
- Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has explored this multiple times, most notably regarding the IRS (who, despite their reputations as Obstructive Bureaucrat, are ham-strung by budget cuttings, limited staffing, and rules that change constantly) and with public defenders (who are so overworked and understaffed that they only can meet with defendants for an average of seven minutes).
- Becker explored this in 2003's episode "Chock Full o' Nuts", where Becker goes to one to complain about a residential care facility getting closed in his neighborhood, causing his clinic to be flooded by the former patients. Having faced the run-around from others, Becker gets belligerent with this one until he pushes too far.
You're not listening! I can't help! Nobody can help. That facility is not going to reopen, and I'll tell you why: there is no money! There's no money because the federal government cut taxes, which is all anybody seems to care about anymore. That means less money for the state, which means less money for the city, which means we had to cut services, which means fewer cops, fewer firemen, bad air, bad water and crappy schools which will turn out another generation of voters too stupid and greedy to care about anything else besides cutting taxes! So don't you come in here and tell me to fix your problem, because there's not a DAMN THING I CAN DO ABOUT IT!... Where did that come from?
- Burn Notice: In one episode, Sam gets audited by the IRS. Stacey Conolly, the poor guy sent to do the job, clearly had no idea what he was getting into. At first he's an Obstructive Bureaucrat, but once he realizes that his co-workers have punked him by sending him to audit a retired black ops hitman (who is trying to be very polite with him), he's much more accommodating.
Stacey: The IRS does not allow classified deductions, Mr Axe. I'm disallowing this until the operation is made public. And then there's this... [dangles handgun from pencil by trigger guard]
Sam: Well, you wanted documentation of my trip to the Middle East. That's it, the gun. I got it off this guy that was... in this group we were targeting.
Stacey: Ah, so you stole it.
Sam: Oh, I didn't steal it - he was... done with it.
Stacey: So it was a gift.
Sam: It's not a gift! There was this thing... and then... the gun didn't have an owner anymore. [uses a hand gesture and gives a "get it?" look]
Stacey: [beat; dawning realization] ...I'm-I'm just gonna mark that as a "windfall income".
- In The Men from the Ministry Mildred becomes one when she's promoted from secretary to a civil servant in the episode "I Want My Mummy". As an acting junior executive, she doesn't have immunity yet and everyone else dumps their work on her, and because of the workload she ends up mixing the British Museum's Egypt exhibition and Mr. Crawley's order for traffic warden uniforms together, as well as accidentally sending the exhibition's mummy to a hotel in Paris.
- In GURPS Traveller Interstellar 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.
- Warhammer 40,000 has this in the form of the Administratum, which has the unenviable task of administrating an empire of billions of worlds and trillions of souls. Whole sectors get lost in rounding errors and there have been wars between queues of clerks that have required the Space Marines being sent in to stop. An enormous part of the Imperial Palace on Terra, which takes up the whole of the Himalayan Mountains, is given over to the Administratum as a workplace.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In Shin Megami Tensei IV, Charon The Ferryman is in charge of preparing the souls of the departed for travel across the River Styx, but it up to his elbows in paperwork. As such, even though it's against the rules for ferrymen, he's willing to return you to the land of the living if you grease his palms a little. After all, "Macca opens up all doors." He's even willing to put up a tab if you're a little short, but if you don't pay him back at his convenience and die again, he'll just have a jailor toss your soul in some mountain.
- One of your followers in Jade Empire is Zin Bu the Magic Abacus, a Celestial Bureaucrat who was assigned to tabulate the player character's karma but couldn't keep up with them and was demoted to commerce, with an entire department replacing him. Now he tries to salvage his career by selling you spirit gems, at a markup.
- According to the audio logs and emails, most of the administrative employees in Doom 3 were having a nightmare of a time dealing with the workload in Mars City before Hell invaded, with extended back-to-back shifts that were barely enough to keep up with the incident reports on work-related injuries, disappearing personnel, power deficiencies, equipment breakdowns and bouts of clinical dementia, and that's only on entries directly regarding the reports. One PDA from a dead benefits analyst implies the financial work dealing with the costs of the incidents was a terror unto itself.
- Mass Effect: Andromeda: Director of Colonial Affairs Foster Addison, whose plan in Andromeda was to wait a few months for a colony to be set up, bugger off to it and live in blissful isolation and obscurity. Things having gone very wrong since the Initiative arrived in Andromeda means she's second in-command under Jarunn Tann, which has made the already grouchy woman beyond pissed when Ryder shows up. A minor side-plot is that her assistant is a total fuck-up, but she's turning a blind eye because he's (appearing) to do some of the more annoying jobs (though as it transpired, part of the beleaguering is because of said assistant). Not helping at the start of the game is that her title is meaningless, since the first two colonies came to bad ends.
- FreedomToons tends to be against centralizing specific services because of the amount of red tape and bureaucracy that would result from doing so. "The Debunkers vs. The New York Times: America Isn't Great" discusses this with regards to several topics like medical services and education. For education specifically, the debunkers point out how America used to lead the world in education in the 1960s and 70s. However, in 1979, the Department of Education was formed, and instead of schools being allowed to teach their own personal curriculum, they were forced to follow a federal standard. This also resulted in educational spending skyrocketing, and America's global ranking in education has been dropping since the department was founded.
- Rumisiel would like you to believe he was one in Misfile and that his having far too much to do with no breaks was the reason for his little recreational drug use that kicked off the plot. It may even be true since The Fifth Branch is later referred to as only having one clerk who is on administrative leave.
- Legate Zippobic the dragon in The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!.
- 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.
- Steven Universe: Mayor Dewey is revealed to be one in "Political Power". Keeping the citizens of Beach City happy in the face of all the weirdness that goes on thanks to the presence of the Crystal Gems is apparently very stressful.
- Buzz Lightyear of Star Command has Commander Nebula, Buzz and Team Lightyear's commanding officer, and veteran ranger who for most of the time, plays this trope straight, save for a few Aversion-Ex-Machinas where he shoved his bureaucracy aside to save Buzz and his squad from certain danger. Invoked in the episode "Conspiracy" where Buzz notices that signing paperwork is something Nebula wouldn't be willing to do. Which causes Buzz to shoot Nebula, where the Nebula he shot is a mechanized disguise used by tiny alien terrorists in an attempt to fool Lightyear into assassinating the Galactic President, after framing him for their own attempt to kill the Galactic President with another disguise modeled after Buzz himself.
- 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.
- Even service jobs like customer service isn't immune to this. It is not uncommon to see a single person trying to help several customers at once due to lack of staff or the entire staff being overwhelmed. You either get a worker trying to help as quickly as possible to get to everyone that needs attention or they help one person at a time, which can cause waiting customers to grow impatient. This in turn can get the worker's supervisor to either scold them for doing shoddy work by cutting corners to help everyone quickly or taking too long to help each person.
- 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 and the District of Columbia and 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 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
- Under Italian law, no lawsuit, no matter how frivolous, may be dismissed until it goes before a judge. There's also no penalty for repeatedly filing frivolous lawsuits. It's a system that all but begs to be overloaded.