I found this in the Letters section of the latest issue of The Times Literary Supplement (dated March 15, 2013). It doesn’t seem to be online:
Sir, – In David Winters’s review of The Demon of Writing by Ben Kafka he mentions a clerk who saved the actors of the Comédie-Française during the Terror, by soaking their death warrants in a tub and throwing the balls of pulp out of the window (February 15). In the 1960s I worked as a welfare case worker, along with several hundred others, in a vast office in downtown Chicago. Each of the families of my 300 clients existed, bureaucratically speaking, as a large binder filled with forms and written notes. When the families had been on welfare for several generations, the binders were equivalent to two or three large telephone books.
Overwhelmed with an avalanche of forms, telephone calls, clients waiting for hours downstairs to see me, home visits to the high-rise housing projects in which they lived, I was taught by the veteran case workers to simply go into the huge library where the binders were stored, alphabetically on endless shelves, and “accidentally” file binders out of place. Then I could innocently plead that I was unable to take any action on the case because I could not find the binder. Without the binder nothing in the status of the clients could change, their cheques would continue to arrive, and I could “miraculously” locate their binder if I needed to. Sadly, we were on the verge of the computer age, the information was beginning to appear on IBM punch cards, and the binders were soon to become obsolete, signalling the beginning of a far more ruthless era in which no clerk could make inconvenient facts disappear.
MICHAEL LIPSEY 75 San Marino Drive, San Rafael, California 94901.
This speaks volumes to the humanity that “inefficient” bureaucratic organization can enable. Further, it foregrounds how contemporary drives towards efficiency and order can obviate some historical means of bureaucratic resistance, resistance that was significant for maintaining and improving people’s daily lives.