Give Bureaucrats a Chance!

One of the things I found myself thinking, when writing about corruption among bureaucrats, is that in many stories and games bureaucrats, desk jockeys and others who live by papers and numbers get the short end of the stick.

We’ve all seen the types. You get the corrupt ones—oh, so many corrupt ones—who are behind everything for their own benefit, or who have reduced all the people whose fates pass over their desks to mere numbers or statistics. Sometimes you might get one who isn’t bad, per se, but is still a constant impediment to Our Protagonists because of a seemingly compulsive need to follow the rules to the letter regardless of the inconvenience it causes. (I find myself wondering if it might have more to do with the protagonists practically dripping disdain for the desk-jockeys and assuming they’re all going to be corrupt anyway; if someone was at my desk claiming that there shouldn’t need to be a master’s degree in library science, I know I might be rather tempted to just point him in the direction of the card catalog and let him deal with the rest on his own, or get really “them’s the rules” about his overdues.) Occasionally you might get the Little Desk Jockey, who really wants to help but is small and weak and really doesn’t know much about the world beyond his bean counting. You don’t often get heroes.

For some people, the key to making a desk jockey heroic is to give him—it’s usually a him—an extra set of skills. So you get your bureaucrats-who-happen-to-be-healers, your bureaucrats-who-happen-to-be-martial-artists (particularly in Exalted), your bureaucrats-who-happen-to-be-retired-swordsmen… you get the idea. Or they take someone who’s just paper-pushed all his—yes, again—life, and stick him in a situation in which those skills aren’t near enough (Black Lagoon, anyone?).

But who says that the only stories worth telling are the ones you can’t stick a bureaucrat in, ever? It doesn’t all have to be epic fights. You might have someone who’s willing to falsify a few numbers to protect people’s lives or an important secret, or someone who needs to figure out that numbers have been falsified and protect that knowledge until it can be given to the proper authorities; acquisition and concealment of information is pretty straightforward for someone who already knows all the number tricks. But they’re not always as immediately life or death. Sometimes it’s a fight against the dreaded deadline, with procedures that have to be made up on the spot. (For example, I’m currently in the middle of my own little desk-jockey drama at the library, inventing cataloging and display strategies for an overabundance of a material we weren’t expecting very many of—I might go into more detail on this later.) It doesn’t even have to be only things a bureaucrat’s specialized to do, all the time.

Just because people work with papers and have rules to follow doesn’t mean that they in their own way can’t be movers and shakers in the story. Give your bureaucrats a chance to do… something.

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