It was, I thought, a relatively simple task: make one or two phone calls and get the answer to a yes-or-no question. I should have known better—the call was to the federal government.
It all started with a public-policy development with prime Trends potential: the Labor Department had proposed (yet again) lifting the 44-year-old federal ban on commercial garment work done at home. All I needed was to find out whether the proposal passed.
I called the office of Labor Secretary William Brock. But instead of getting an answer, I got shuffled from one bureaucrat to another. I got put on hold. I was told to call so-and-so at another number. I must have talked to at least five people before someone could help me. O.K.—except the progression of calls seemed to follow no logical pattern. Not only did people not know the answer to my question, they didn't know who did. They just passed me along to the next guy.
Worse, most of the people didn't even understand my question. (I could see that this proposal was really making waves in Washington). Maybe I should have referred to "commercial work done at home" instead of the more common "home work." Still, I didn't expect people there to ask incredulously, "Proposal to ban homework?"—like they thought their kids would be prohibited from studying after school (which, given the things the state regulates, is not so far-fetched).
I finally got someone who told me that the two-month public comment period for the proposal had been extended another month and a half. I'd have to call back then.
I did. But instead of calling the person who'd finally helped me last time, I conducted a little experiment. I pretended I was Joe Concerned Citizen, who wasn't used to calling the federal government. I figured the average person would start with Brock's office, so that's what I did.
Even though I was more precise this time, inquiring about the proposal to lift the ban on industrial homework, the response was still, "What?" The third person I spoke with on the first call told me to try the deputy undersecretary in the Employment Standards Office, who in turn gave me a name and number in the Wage and Hour Office. The second person there referred me to someone in something called National Employment, who passed me on to yet another person. By then I had no idea whom I was speaking to, in what department.
I had to make five phone calls and talk with eight people to get the answer to a simple question. Given how often I have to do this, I shouldn't have been surprised. But I never really stopped to think how hard it is to be a concerned citizen—hard on your patience and hard on your wallet. If I had been trying to call someone in the business world—and this does happen there, although far less frequently—I wouldn't have felt so trapped and frustrated. I would have hung up and called another company. But that's not possible with our civil servants, and they know it. They don't need to be helpful; they don't even need to be nice. You and I are paying for this service.
By the way, the Labor Department is reviewing public comments on the proposal. The person I spoke with doesn't know when the department will make its decision. I'm supposed to call back later.
On a happier note, we at REASON were proud to see Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager make aviation history in the Voyager last December when they completed their round-the-world flight. REASON spotlighted Dick and his brother, Burt, who designed the Voyager, in April 1985. The brothers were (and remain) outspoken in their belief that government regulations stymie aeronautical progress. Now they'll be known for setting a world record without using any government money. The trio financed the venture with their own money and that of grass-roots and corporate supporters. Said Dick Rutan exultantly after landing, "We did it on our own."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Upfront: Calling All Bureaucrats".