The ways of bureaucracy are sometimes wondrous to behold, and frequently difficult to fathom. Witness these three examples of Odd Officialdom in Action that made me wonder, despite explanations.
Case One: Charlene Yazurlo of Lorton heard the sirens going off one day at the D.C. government's nearby prison complex. Worried that a bunch of desperadoes might be on the loose, she called the prison's main switchboard at 727-4000 and, without identifying herself, asked:
"Can you tell me if there's been a breakout?"
"No," said the male voice on the other end of the phone.
"No, you can't tell me, or, no, there hasn't been?"
"No, I can't tell you."
Charlene then identified herself as a Lorton resident. She was transferred to an extension, where another prison official confirmed that a breakout had indeed taken place. But he did it only after several minutes, and he didn't seem too eager to fess up, Charlene says.
Is such reluctance the policy of the D.C. Department of Corrections? Not at all, says Leroy Anderson of the public relations office. "We tell them what the facts are," he said. "They can talk to any responsible official out there."
"If anybody calls, we would give them all the information we have," adds Douglas Stempson, executive assistant director for correctional services. "We figure it's something the public would have the right to know."
How does he explain what happened to Charlene? She "could have gotten through to someone not authorized to say, or someone who didn't know (there had been a breakout)," Stempson says. He suggests that Lorton residents ask for him by name, or for the administrator's office, whenever the sirens are sounded.
To my mind, that system might double community fears, not halve them.
What if the phone extensions to the administrator's office or Stempson's office are busy, as they certainly would be during a breakout? Does the Corrections Department expect Lortonians to hang on for an hour before they can set their minds at ease?
Why not give full details to the operator on the switchboard, and give him the power and the responsibility to pass them out?
Case Two: Charles Bortwick of Northwest wanted to open a bank account for his 6-year-old son. He had obtained a Social Security number for the boy about three years before, but had mislaid it.
Anticipating that he'd need the number to open the account, Charles called Social Security regional headquarters in Baltimore. "Sure, glad to do it," said the helpful voice who read Charles his son's nine digits. "We're always glad to give out numbers over the phone."
"No way. No way. No way," says John Trollinger of Social Security public relations. "Social Security records are very confidential and we do not discuss any information over the phone regarding Social Security matters."
The Baltimore office may verify Social Security numbers in certain cases, Trollinger said. For example, "if a hospital calls and they want to confirm that so-and-so is eligible for Medicare or something." But that would require the caller to know the person's Social Security number in advance. Social Security officials would never volunteer it over the phone, Trollinger said.
I think Brother Trollinger may be a trifle naive. If Charles Bortwick sounded honest on the phone, and said he needed his son's Social Security number for an innocent purpose, I'll bet plenty of Social Security employes would provide it. Behind every regulation is a human being who may have a 6-year-old son, too.
Case Three: An employe of Arlington Hospital writes to report a bad taste in her mouth, left by the way the United Way campaign was conducted in her office.
"Prizes were offered as incentives, and an extra surprise (was given) to department heads who managed to get 100 percent of their employes to contribute," writes the employe, who asked to remain anonymous "because the unemployment rolls are high enough already."
"At least five people . . . did not want to contribute. One woman's husband gave at his own job. However, after a coercive talk from the boss, all have contributed. If they hadn't, a contribution would have been made in their names.
"I thought the point of the United Way was to contribute voluntarily, in a humanitarian effort, not because you got chances on a bike or a Sony Walkman, but out of concern for your fellow man."
"We stress very much that it is a choice and that the employe does not have to contribute," said the hospital's public relations director, Beverly Rawlings, when asked to comment. She said she is "very surprised" to hear about coercion by supervisors. She says the hospital has never had this kind of complaint before.
But just because a columnist hasn't called before doesn't mean coercion hasn't gone on for years, Beverly.
Office politics flourishes everywhere, even in hospitals. To obtain 100 percent participation in a charity drive is a tempting way for a junior boss to show a senior one how strong a "family feeling" exists in his department. Unfortunately, as in real families, some of the sons and daughters may have to be dragged to the table, kicking and screaming.