Why I Do Not Call Government Agencies

Government hotlineEarlier this year, someone mentioned a specific type of government report to me. I needed to know what this report was, but the guy’s accent made it difficult to figure what he was referring to. I sent an email plea out to my co-workers asking for insight. Several people wrote back and suggested I contact a specific government agency and ask if they could figure out what the guy was talking about.

I didn’t feel I had enough information to justify that kind of long, involved interaction with the government. To explain myself, I shared the following story with everyone. I only infuriated one person by forgetting to strip that person’s reply from the email, but I think the story got my point across (and, yes, we did eventually figure out what report the guy was talking about).

Let me tell you a little story.

When I was in college, I was getting financial aid. I needed to get that stupid report from the government every year on which my Pell Grant and other funds were assessed. One year, I moved about the time the report was mailed to me. The U.S. Post Office doesn’t forward confidential documents sent out by the Federal government. I called the Post Office and asked for an emergency intercept. I had to talk to three supervisors before getting the Atlanta Postmaster General (or whatever his title is) on the phone, and he authorized the intercept. I had to go down to the Post Office and fill out a form, but it was too late. They had already sent the report back.

So I called the government agency that issued the report and they said, “If the Post Office has returned it, we have burned it.”

I said, “You burned it?”

“Privacy laws require that all returned confidential documentation be destroyed. But you can request a duplicate report. It will take three weeks to process.”

By this time, I had to have the report into the financial aid office within a week or I would lose my government grants and scholarships. Other financial aid would not be sufficient to make up the slack.

So I said, “May I speak to your supervisor?”

The supervisor was very understanding and apologetic and said, “I cannot do anything for you. You’ll have to speak to my boss. She is in Kansas City (we’re in Iowa/Idaho).”

So I called Kansas City. The super-supervisor in Kansas City was very understanding and apologetic and said, “I cannot do anything for you. You’ll have to speak to my boss. He is in (Iowa/Idaho).”

So I called Iowa/Idaho and got: “I cannot do anything for you. You’ll have to speak to my boss. He is in (some Midwestern city).”

I called the Midwest. I called Boston. I called Washington D.C. Washington sent me back to the Midwest.

This last call resulted in, “No one can legally do anything for you except the agency administrator. He works in Washington.”

“But I just talked to Washington and they referred me to you.”

“I am a regional director. I know what I am talking about. You have to call Mr. So-and-so at this number.”

So, I called “this number” and the secretary answered with, “Under-secretary So-and-so’s office.”

I said, “UNDER-secretary?”

“Yes sir.”

“As in, he reports directly to a cabinet-level official?”

“Yes sir. What is the purpose of your call?”

I explained what was up. We were on day two of this bureaucratic journey. The Post Office had informed me if the report didn’t go out this day, I would be out of college the next week.

“Mr. So-and-so is not in right now. I’ll have to take a message.”

I said, “I don’t mean to sound rude, but is he really going to call me back?”

“It’s his job, sir. He’ll call you.”

Sure enough, two hours later, an Undersecretary in the Department of Education called me back, listened to my near tear-stricken tale of bureaucratic grief, and he said, “I do have the authority to authorize an emergency copy be overnighted to you. I will do that because, frankly, no one has ever come this far before.”

So, I got my report and stayed in college.

Okay, cute story. Maybe I should have submitted it to Reader’s Digest or something, but my point is that you don’t just call a government agency and get a simple answer to a question.