Every organization forms a system with rules and unwritten norms and a unique culture. When you have to navigate a bureaucratic system, the trick is to learn the hidden secrets and shortcuts. A recent experience with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) reinforced this for me.

My younger son completed the online driver’s training course and was ready to get his learner’s permit. Time to navigate DPS!

Since it is government, we knew to collect and double-check all of the paperwork. We had applications, affidavits, proof of residency, insurance, registrations, school reports, birth certificates and more. Whew! That step alone was exhausting.

Lesson 1: Paperwork and deadlines

That was lesson number one – follow the paperwork trail.

In the corporate world, paperwork helps keep the bureaucracy moving. You need to know and meet deadlines. Get your forms filled out and submitted. This applies to project deadlines and deliverables. It also applies to paperwork for benefits, performance reviews, internal applications, security clearances, expense reports, travel approvals and more.

Save yourself a lot of hassle and just get it done. If you miss a deadline, you’ll need to appeal for an exception. That can get complicated. You will get a reputation for being poorly organized or high maintenance.

Lesson 2: Know the shortcuts

The second lesson from the DPS involves knowing the process shortcuts.

Like corporations, government agencies serve a big population which requires well-planned processes. With every process, you can navigate it the easy way or force yourself through the hard way.

After asking around and doing some online research, we found some DPS shortcuts. For example, there are many DPS sites, but some are mega-centers which have a bigger staff and process people more quickly.

More importantly, we learned about the online feature to get in line. You access a DPS website and enter your contact information. They provide you an approximate time to arrive and you start at the front of the line. It took us two different tries on two different days to get access to this shortcut. You have to login early – really early. But it paid off.

We arrived at our time in mid-morning. At the time, no one waited outside. But the waiting rooms inside were teeming with people. We waited a short time, conducted our business and got out.

By the time we left, at least a hundred people were lined up outside in the 95 degree humid heat. The sign at the front of the line indicated it would be a 3.5 hour wait from that point. We completed our visit in about 45 minutes. Those who did not know the shortcut faced a 4+ hour wait.

Corporate Shortcut: Seek help

It pays to research shortcuts. One powerful but underutilized corporate shortcut is to pick up the phone and call someone. When struggling with a bureaucratic task, you can often cut through the red tape by working directly with someone. That someone does not need to be a senior person. In fact, you often get better results by working with someone more involved in the process.

If you don’t understand your benefits options, call the benefits help line or your HR business partner. If you can’t get your IT group to answer your repair ticket and fix your broken computer, ask around to get a name of the best troubleshooter. Based on my experience, most people will stop and help someone who contacts them by phone. Stop struggling in frustrated silence. Reach out and seek help.

Lesson 3: Have patience

The third and final lesson from our DPS adventure is to have patience. Complicated systems require complicated processes. As frustrating as it can be, bureaucracies need a mechanism to manage lots of people, projects, goals and paper. Many processes can be improved – some need a major overhaul and some only need continuous improvement. But in the the moment, your goal is to get through the process and accomplish your task. Be patient.

Don’t take your frustrations out on the person helping you. We had a pleasant conversation with our DPS staffer as he processed the paperwork. He did a great job within his complicated system. Some of the people who had to wait four hours in the Texas summer heat, probably did not feel patient or friendly by the time they were processed. Take an opportunity like this to practice building rapport.

In your corporate world, as with DPS, prepare your paperwork, know the shortcuts and stay patient. Good luck in navigating your red tape!

This article was originally posted at Science of Working as “3 bureaucracy busting lessons from the DPS” on July 1, 2019.


  • Ann Howell

    Executive Coach

    Howell Leadership Science

    I write about research-supported workplace topics and improving workplaces. I'm also experimenting with humor writing in my Level 50 Life series. Be warned - this is an experiment, and explosions, or at least bad jokes, could occur at any time.