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Short Skirt/Long Jacket, by Cake, is sort of my theme song. That lyric, “I want a girl…Who uses a machete, to cut through red tape,” it’s a mindset and a skill set (not so much an actual machete). The skill set can be taught, and the mindset comes from the experience of implementing those skills. Here are my top five tips for cutting through red tape in government and making your voice heard. To illustrate, I’ll use an example from my own life, where my boyfriend was denied his green card a couple times because of a database error.
1) Do your research before you act.
All of us can get impassioned and angry when we see an injustice or experience the dull sting of bureaucracy. If you want to actually make a difference and not just be another angry person on the internet, you have to do you research. Here’s what that research looks like: determine the government agency or office you need to engage to get the problem fixed. Who has the influence and decision-making authority on your issue? Who influences them (in their office/agency or externally)?
In the case of my boyfriend’s green card, which took 10 years to get approved (and was denied several times), I suspected that a database error was to blame for his denials. So, via research, I found out who provided the database to the USCIS, a nonprofit organization who also provides degree verification services to the public. Their fee for the public? $75, so we turned in his degree information to them, paid the $75 bucks, and viola! They confirmed that his degree met the very standard the USCIS (who used that nonprofit’s database) claimed it did not—confirming our hypothesis of a database error. So, what do you do with that information?
2) Get yourself an ally or advocate.
Government agencies are often, sadly, bureaucratic and standoffish to the public. Unless you can find an ally on the inside (a friendly clerk, a friend of a friend, an office ombudsman you could contact, or receptive leadership), you’ve got to go to an elected representative. I prefer going to council members and members of your House of Representatives. The smaller their district size, the better. Find what district you are in and make sure that legislative body oversees the agency/office you’re trying to engage. It’s like a match game. If you have a problem with your local school, go to elected school board members. A state issue? Go to your state representative.
So, in the case of immigration, that’s a federal issue—and the matching legislative body is the US House of Representatives. We contacted our local House member’s office and asked to talk to a legislative assistant who specialized in immigration issues and “citizen services.”
We provided a letter and documentation of our case to a member of our Congressman’s staff, which she used to initiative a conversation with USCIS. In this process, she expressed to USCIS that we had evidence that a database error had erroneously held up his green card. Via the Congressional aide, USCIS asked my boyfriend to appeal again—highly unusual, since he’d exhausted all appeals–and his lawyers filed the appeal.
3) Be civil, understanding, and persistent.
People in government are understaffed, stressed, and risk averse. If you want to get anything done, you have to not take the process personally, to get through, make sure that they know you as someone who is kind, consistent, and persistent (but not too needy). It’s a tough line to walk, especially when your nerves are being tested. Try to see things from their perspective, and work with their challenges. Ask, “what could I do that would help you in this process?” Take notes. Then do it.
If you don’t hear back in two weeks, make a follow up phone call and say, “I’m just checking back. Sounds like your office has been busy lately–could you brief me on where we’re at? Is there anything else you need from me?” Sometimes, they just haven’t gotten to your case yet. This is a gentle reminder to make you a priority. Finally, thank people. At each step of the way, when someone helps you get closer to your goal, thank them. A thank-you note goes a long way to humanizing your case and recognizing the effort they’re put into it.
4) Be your own project coordinator.
If you’re starting to get traction on your issue, take a moment to map out the people you’re reaching out to, organize all your relevant documents, outline next steps for alternate outcomes. Even if it’s just with a pencil and paper, get this stuff down. It helps to reinforce the plan and help you see how far you’ve come. It’s also handy for the next phase:
5) Do the details.
You may wait a long time to get a final response. Keep checking in every few weeks with relevant people helping your case–for us, that meant pinging lawyers and cajoling them when we felt they hadn’t taken timely action. It meant going to every meeting with USCIS. It took a while, but making sure we’d done every last detail kept problems from cropping up, and even when they did, we were on top of it.
If you’re working through something larger than your own case, this point in the process is especially critical. Have you talked with all the appropriate elected leaders and/or their staff about your issue? Have you, when appropriate, engaged local media on your story to giver your issue more urgency and support? Have you examined if other governing bodies or agencies could weigh in and influence your issue?
6) Never feel too small.
Red tape can make us feel powerless, but in resigning ourselves to powerlessness, we weaken our cause. Don’t let anyone talking down to you, or placing barriers in your way, effect your resolve.
You know what happens when you show up and work the system professionally? You gain respect and experience. Those two things are valuable—you make yourself known as the civil, smart, determined citizen. This gains you respect and opens doors. If you want to be this person, you can’t let yourself feel defeated or embittered.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should get you thinking about what you can do to cut through bureaucracy and achieve your goal. Good luck on your mission! You really can make a difference and cut through red tape.
PS, If you need any inspiration, use this.