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Hacker (upon discovering a schedule conflict in his diary): Bernard, how could you allow this to happen?

Bernard: CBE, Minister.

Hacker: CBE?

Bernard: Can't Be Everywhere.
Yes Minister, "The Economy Drive".

You get the Obstructive Bureaucrat, who is just being a bit of a jobsworth and stopping something crucial from happening. And then you get the Beleaguered Bureaucrat.

The Beleaguered Bureaucrat would love to help you with your problems... if they weren't dealing with a dozen other equally important (in the bureaucrat's eyes) matters at the same time, usually while being shouted at for not being able to do five things at once. Basically, this is a character who is swamped with too much work whose performance (and stress level) is clearly suffering for it. If it's a main character, expect their stress at this to become a Running Gag. Can become a problem for heroes if they need something done by this character quickly.

The tropes: Beleaguered Bureaucrat, Department of Child Disservices, and Social Services Does Not Exist; overlap since they all involve the same problems. The employees are often overworked, underpaid, lack resources, and suffer the public’s wrath. They then turn into the Obstructive Bureaucrat and use Bothering by the Book to slow down the workload or get revenge on the people who make unreasonable demands.

Signs that you are dealing with this character are:

  • When told "This is serious!" or even "This is a Matter of Life and Death!" they will snap "Yes, and so are the other dozen things I'm expected to do today." If not, "Everyone says that."
  • They will typically be buried, sometimes literally, under waves of red tape and paper work. Expect every comic bureaucrat related trope to be in full force. If on the phone, they will either be talking very quickly or getting yelled at. Bonus points in animation if they are trying to answer two phones at once.
  • They will constantly look frazzled and will usually be short tempered even after work. This is often played quite seriously. (One may insist on an Ordered Apology by the wronged party to the person who injured, just to keep things moving.)

If its the king who is beleaguered, this is one way an Evil Chancellor may get into power. The chancellor offers to do some of the work for the king and the grateful leader allows more and more of the responsibility of running the country to get shifted to the chancellor until soon the chancellor is running more of the country than the king is. And of course, the king never believes anyone who tells him about the abuses of power or the scheming of the chancellor against the throne: to the king, the chancellor is a great guy who has made his job much easier and whom he trusts absolutely.

This trope is quite closely related to Hanlon's Razor. Don't always assume that people in office work or government aren't managing things properly because they're corrupt or malicious. They may simply have way too much work on their hands, and not have the skills or resources to deal with them.

Examples of Beleaguered Bureaucrat include:


Comic Books

  • Tony Stark during his time as the Director of SHIELD had some serious aspects of this. Especially during the Knauf's run.
    • Steve Epting wrote him like this, constantly exhausted and at one or two points thinking about relapsing back into alcohol addiction.
  • When Clark Kent was a television reporter in the 70's, the director of the evening newscast was an antacid-popping, constantly stressed-out guy named Josh Coyle. The fact that Clark would frequently appear just a split second before the broadcast or secretly vanish to do super-heroing during commercial breaks played even more merry havoc with the guy's nerves.
  • The French foreign affairs minister's staff in Quai d'Orsay collectively qualifies.

Literature

  • Frank Herbert's Jorj X. McKie stories (such as The Tactful Saboteur). McKie is a member of the Bureau of Sabotage (BuSab), whose job it is to make every efficient government worker a Beleaguered Bureaucrat, in order to prevent the Con Sentiency government from working too fast and going out of control.
  • Ponder Stibbons, of Discworld's Unseen University, is the only wizard who cares much about anything besides his next meal, leaving him saddled with dozens of jobs. This leads him to a mini-CMOA (at least mini by Disc standards) when he interrupts the feuding Archchancellors of two magical universities by saying that his various posts give him enough votes on the University Council to control it.
  • The Lamplighter-Marshal in D.M. Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo series is this; it is telling that his first on-screen appearance has him running all about his domain having been sent to the wrong place by a (probably malicious) clerk. Otherwise, however, he's a perfectly Reasonable Authority Figure until he's called away as part of a power-play by his Evil Chancellor, who just happens to be a genuine Obstructive Bureaucrat in charge of a legion of Obstructive Bureaucrats. Not quite the man you want in charge of what is effectively a military frontier.
  • Sir John Busby tries his best, but once the proverbial hits the fan, he can't really keep up with the volume of Wardens' reports, and his usual efficiency takes a nose dive.
  • In Transformers Trans Tech, the red-tape-happy Axiom Nexus is full of bureaucrats, including this sort. In "Withered Hope" in particular, the inability of an overworked and underpaid bureaucrat to help the GoBots (yes, you read that right) find among the thousands of others waiting to be processed through Customs the rogue scientist that escaped from their group, is what sets all their problems in motion.
  • The IRS recruiter in Chicago in The Pale King.
  • A Beleaguered Bureaucrat (in charge of "Xeno-Cultural Gestalt Clearance", i.e., relations with extraterrestrials) is the protagonist of the short story "Birth of A Salesman" by James Tiptree, Jr.

Live Action TV

  • Just one of Jim Hacker's many problems in Yes Minister. His woes regarding this trope continue in the sequel, Yes, Prime Minister.
    • Bernard wades into this territory every now and then; the most notable examples are "The Economy Drive," where he is one of the few DAA staffers left after Hacker attempts an ill-considered economy drive, and "A Diplomatic Incident," where he is tasked with the organisation of Hacker's predecessor's funeral.
  • In Star Trek, Starfleet Command sometimes give the impression of being somewhere between this and Obstructive Bureaucrat.
  • The entire point of Parks and Recreation. Laid out clearly in the Season 2 episode "Christmas Scandal," where the office divides up Leslie Knope's schedule and realizes exactly how busy she is.
    • In large part this seems to be why Mark Brendanawicz leaves at the end of season 2.
  • Dr. Lisa Cuddy of House constantly gives the impression that she has far too much on her plate, and in her A Day in the Limelight episode "5 to 9," this impression is confirmed with a vengeance, showing that the titular physician, for all the antagonism he gives Cuddy, is only about 50% of her problems.
  • A general example: Some of the more sympathetic portrayals of social workers or probation/parole officers can fall under this: When called out on that one mistake or oversight that leads to the Victim of the Week's demise, they invariably point out the huge number of cases that the desperately understaffed office is saddled with and the fact that they can't be in two places at once. Which, sadly, tends to be Truth in Television in more than a few cities.
  • The 1970s New Zealand stage show, and later 1980s TV sitcom, Gliding On parodied this trope.

Tabletop Games

  • In GURPS Traveller Interstellar Wars we are told that the Vilani Imperium was deliberately organized to make the Emperor this. The idea was that there would be less volatility if everything was slowed down.
  • Paranoia more typically features the Obstructive version, but these can appear as well.

Video Games

  • In the Broken Steel DLC for Fallout 3, the guy that the Brotherhood of Steel puts in charge of administrating Project Purity and the water distribution campaign can be accurately described as this. He's got reports coming in at all hours, and his office is pretty much stacked with files and forms from wall to wall. If you talk to him, he's kinda snippy towards you and blames you for his current workload; you know, cause you're responsible for the damn purifier being completed and turned on in the first place.
    • The fact that he's got practically no resources at his disposal (bottling station? We just dip it under and it goes glub-glub-glub), and that all his subordinates are wholly incompetent scribe rejects, his frustration and his falling asleep at his desk are understandable.
      • He himself is a scribe reject, having irked the proctors (leaders) of all three scribe orders in the Citadel in some manner or other.

Web Comics

Real Life

  • Many, many heads of government run into this problem. One indicator of a strong leader is how good an administrator they are.
    • To see proof of this, one just simply has to look at the photos of a person before and after they took office. The amount that people in high offices age is astounding.
  • Busy libraries can give this impression. If you see a long snake-like queue, it's probably best not to bother the staff about that book you want to locate. They're probably praying for their next tea break.
  • As mentioned above, social workers, parole officers, other public officials and civil servants, and even nurses and doctors, can fall victim to this trope. There's been records of failings being almost wholly down to staff shortages and poor logistics putting too much work on too few people.
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