We know social services can be confusing and many people working at these agencies also know it is. But they want to be helpful. We asked someone who has worked at the Department of Human Services for over 30 years to give us advice on how to navigate the system. This is what she wrote:
Bureaucracies are complex governmental organizations but characteristics of bureaucracies can be found in hospitals, schools, economic assistance organizations, tax systems, court systems, mental health systems, child welfare systems, and insurance companies.
Often, when you need help you need to go to a bureaucracy. Remember, bureaucracies are made up of people. The bad news is that bureaucracies may be made up of people who may have forgotten that they work in complex systems that are difficult for other folks to figure out BUT the good news is that they also have people who are generally interested in helping you.
Always remember, you have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. You may have other rights too. For example, children with serious emotional disorders have the civil right to receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.
Generally, people who work in bureaucracies are overworked, busy, and sometimes stressed. They are required to use rigid rules to try to help people. In many cases, individual needs don’t always fit in the rules. There are some basic things that may help you survive and get you the help you need.
- Get Information. Go to the library or Google the agency or organization. A good help is “frequently asked questions,” or FAQ's. Be sure to look at any “rules” or “rights” you may have and note any information you need to take with you to an appointment.
- Plan ahead. Write down questions before you go.
- Keep notes. Have a paper and pen ready and write down the name and job of each person you talk with, the date and briefly what they tell you the next steps.
- Ask for help. Ask the people you know who have already had experience about how best to get help. They might even be able to help you connect with a person at the bureaucracy. Ask any person you talk with for suggestions. Always ask, “If I have questions or problems when I leave, who can I go to?” If you are referred somewhere else, ask, “Who would I talk to there?”
- Connect. Set a goal to CONNECT with at least one person in the bureaucracy. Help them see you as an individual with individual needs.
- Remain friendly. Keep your attitude positive and try to remain calm. Listen to what is said, not how it is said. If you get upset, apologize and try to explain your situation. “I’m sorry I got upset but I was up with my daughter most of the night and I just don’t understand what I need to do or who can help me.”
- Keep copies. Keep records of the information that is given to you. If there is an agreement, be sure to ask for a copy or that the agreement is in writing. Ask, “Is there anything you can give me to read later?"
- Don’t burn bridges. Thank each person you talk to….you may need to talk with them again.
- Follow-up. Don’t be afraid to call or ask for help if you have not heard within the expected time frame. Again, be friendly and approach people with a “seeking information” attitude. For example, “I know you are busy, is there anything else I can do to help move this along?”
- Clarify. If you feel confused or don't understand, ask them to spell or write things down for you. It is better to get your information correct the first time.
- Right to Respect. Always remember that you have the right to be respected!
Going Up the Chain of Command
If you are unhappy decide carefully whether it is worth it to go to the person’s supervisor or higher. The risk is that you will cause bad feelings or ill-will with the people you have connected with in the organization. Sometimes, however, it is the only way to get your situation unstuck.