It takes 7 business days to process a visa application for Brazil, so I bought my flight to Sao Paulo for Sept 6 — counting exactly 9 business days from my application, leaving 2 extra days to resolve any potential problems. Sure enough, problems reared their head.
To explain, I am spoiled as a Singaporean because I expect government systems – at least in the ‘first world’ – to be efficient. If the website says it takes 7 days, then I reasonably expect that it’ll be done in 3 days.
On my first trip to the consulate, the staff told me it would take 9 days to return my visa (i.e. the date of my flight). The staff actually expressed annoyance that I bought a ticket so close to the application date (9 business days away, and 11 actual days). Taken aback, I explained that their website clearly states that it takes a maximum of 7 business days, so I’d made my purchase judiciously by taking this timing into account. He confirmed, saying: yes, it’s 7 business days, BUT we don’t include the day of the application, and we don’t count the weekend.
I accepted both reasons, but my 7-day count didn’t include the weekend. I knew my calculation was correct. He proceeded to check the number of days on the calender — referring to the month of November (even though it’s August). I pointed out his silly error. He proceeded to count again, this time with reference to the correct month. He recounted and conceded: true, we should actually give you the visa on September 5th, not September 6th…
All would have been wonderful, but it turned out that my money order was not from USPS so I had to return the following day with the correct money order. I’ll accept that this detail was my fault, so I returned the next day.
However, the next day, the staff told me that my visa would be returned on September 11 — exactly 11 business days from the date of my application, not 7 days — and exactly 5 days after my flight! Again, I calmly mentioned their 7-day estimate — not 11-days. The staff’s response? – Yes, but there are strikes in Brazil…
Strikes in Brazil — so?! First, the strikes are primarily by health workers and teachers; this has nothing to do with a visa application in the USA. Second, you’re not exactly on a strike, although your compatriots might be, so this doesn’t explain the arbitrarily extended processing time. Third, the application gets processed in the USA, not in Brazil. Fourth, even if there was a legitimate reason to extend the processing time, this change was not communicated on the website.
In the interests of amiability, I simply pointed out that I had selected my flight date based on the information stated explicitly on their website, and I was going to hold them to it. (When we think about it, the website serves as an implicit contract: I followed their directions for the documentation, and the least I expect is that they follow their own guidelines.)
I was refusing to budge, so the suited man sitting behind the counter told me he would call his ‘big boss’ so that I could personally explain the situation to him. I said: sure. I waited, and the ‘big boss’ came out. I’m not sure what his exact position is in the hierarchy, but I explained the situation. He listened, scribbled something on my application form, and said I could collect my visa on September 5th, which is a day before my flight (which is how I’d planned it).
All it took was a scribble, and the application time transformed instantly into 6 days, from their insistence on 11 days. I was quite grateful that it worked out, but the episode does not end here.
Before I could leave, the guard came over to me and explained that I should leave feedback about my experience. He directed me to the counter with feedback forms, and told me that the man had been “nice” to make it work for me, so I should say something “nice” in my comments. He gave me the name of the suited man (and even spelled it clearly so it would be accurate). This feedback clearly had some bearing on the staff: perhaps the comments are reviewed by a committee, used for organizational improvements, or applied toward promotions and bonuses.
Either way, I felt pressured to leave feedback in order to exit the consulate, as well as maintain a favorable impression so they wouldn’t screw up my application arbitrarily. Not wanting to give the staff any credit for ‘bending over backwards’ to give me the visa in a timely fashion — this should have been a basic expectation and not a favor from them — I sribbled empty words about their ‘wonderful service’ and left the building.
Several thoughts struck me during this experience. First, the bureaucratic system was clearly inefficient. On my first visit, they messed up the number of days from 7 days to 8 days (by counting wrongly). This is not trivial: it reflects carelessness and lack of adherence to rigor. On my second visit, they refused to honor the 7-day deadline because of strikes in their home country (without updating their website correspondingly, which is the least they could do for visitors to make decisions accordingly). In fact, while I was there, another man was exasperated because he had come to collect his visa on the specified date, but it still wasn’t ready for collection, even though he had called their office to confirm it. He was demanding to know why the office had told him it was ready, when it wasn’t.
These inefficiencies do not facilitate productive decisions, and lead to a waste of time and money. For instance, I could lose money changing my flight ticket, as well as changing meetings, and wasted time at the embassy resolving this problem. I may end up wasting more time and money if the visa is not delivered on time as planned. This lack of efficiency in government institutions – institutions we rely on whether we want to or not – introduces a lack of productivity and, when multiplied across society, it has a profound impact on the economy.
But, people find ways to cope. So, in order to do things more efficiently within a broken system, we rely on other mechanisms — in this case, personal networks. I had to speak (or shmooze) personally with the ‘big boss’ to bypass the ‘newly implemented’ 11-day processing time for visas; it was a necessary step to navigate through the system. I was forced to extract a personal ‘favor’ from him in order to achieve what the system had initially promised to do. Moreover, I had to leave ‘positive feedback’ with his name explicitly mentioned in the form in order to ensure that my relations with them remained positive. In other words, the inefficiency in the system generates corruption, and it also encourages people-to-people networking so that decisions can be approved and moved forward despite the inadequacies of the bureaucratic process. Ultimately, this involves playing a shmoozy game of power and money — whether in big or small doses.
My research is about the relationship between government institutions and personal networks: under what conditions do we see support from the government ‘crowding-out’ our reliance on personal networks and, on the contrary, what sorts of conditions lead to ‘synergistic relations’ between the government and personal networks, i.e. when support from the government in fact strengthens our use of interpersonal networks?
In this case, I can see how government institutions that are inefficient might generate the impetus for us to rely more strongly on our personal networks simply to get things done; of course, this is given the condition that social capital is available to tap into, the lack of which may result in stagnated development (as we see in a variety of impoverished regions worldwide where both state and society is weak). The alternative question, however, is whether supportive government institutions diminish our use of these personal networks, or enhance it, and how and why either scenario may take place.