Thursday, June 4, 2009

Navigating Bureaucracy

As our busy season begins in the Ulaanbaatar office I am reminded of the need to share a bit of advice to international scholars coming to Mongolia to conduct field research for the summer. Make sure you work with people experienced and wise in the ways of navigating Mongolia's bureaucracy. In-laws, former students, a guy you met on the flight over, or anyone else who does not actually interact with the government on a regular basis is probably not going to cut it if you're planning to do something complex, which in Mongolia could be requesting just about any service provided by a government agency.

Mongolia has a complicated (and inefficient) bureaucratic system which is exacerbated by the fact that each ministry and sub-department has its own rules and interpretations of rules. There is also a tendency for bureaucrats to not volunteer pertinent information, further making things opaque, confusing, and all around frustrating. The crazy thing is, though, if you know the rules, most of the time it is really easy and quick to navigate the bureaucracy. That may seem like an exaggeration, but it really is true when it comes to academic research. I am not about to make excuses for government systems, and I am not saying this is true for all agencies, all the time. However, in my experience a significant percentage of the trouble foreign researchers encounter is due to making the following common mistakes:

1. Assuming there is no rule governing an activity because no one has ever said there was a rule.
2. Assuming the problem is a language barrier, and any person fluent in Mongolian should suffice in rectifying issues.
3. Mistaking a lack of pertinent information for an arbitrary and capricious process, and therefore a "corrupt" process.

Mistake one is the most common mistake. It probably comes from a very basic fallacy in which researchers assume their local counterparts know all the requirements governing research activities. This is often not the case, in part, because some projects are outside the experience of the local counterparts, or they themselves have been working blithely unaware that they are violating the law. They may be just as ignorant of the rules as their international colleagues. Therefore, it is always a good idea to think "Does this require special permission in my home country?" and if the answer is "Yes" or "It seems like it would" then you probably need special permission to do it in Mongolia, too. Local counterparts can generally get away with breaking the law or violating regulations because of enforcement difficulties created by a lack of resources at relevant agencies or just a plain lack of awareness among everyone involved. No such "shadow" environment exists for foreign scholars because of the very fact that most foreign scholars stand out, and therefore authorities can be selective about enforcing rules and regulations on those who more often than not are in fact violating rules and regulations, even if naively.

Mistake two is probably the most subtle and therefore insidious mistake that international researchers make. All interactions with the government in Mongolia are people-to-people. That means that the person acting on your behalf should have strong interpersonal communication skills, be able to garner respect from local authorities, and in general have enough experience to navigate new areas of the bureaucracy. An international researcher who hires a 20 year old college student to act as translator for 25,000MNT per day should not be surprised if at government agency after government agency he/she encounters obstacle after obstacle. Would one rely on an inexperienced kid to handle a complex task in one's own home country? No, of course not. The situation is no different in Mongolia, and often language is a necessary but not sufficient tool for solving problems. Experience is far more important in the end than language ability, and yet we see scholar after scholar putting all their faith in people who have only one skill: being bilingual.

Mistake three is just poor thinking. Bureaucrats the world over are notoriously unhelpful, incompetent, and arguably sadistic. No one ever says, "Boy, I am looking forward to going to the Department of Motor Vehicles today!" without a obvious tone of sarcasm. Government offices are like dentist offices, places most people go when they have no other choice. This is true in every country I have ever lived in. The best policy is to always assume that the government official is actually doing his/her job, and the obstacles one is encountering are due to mistakes one and two above, or because one is just having a bad bit of luck dealing with a stubborn civil servant. Interpersonal communication skills of the variety that Dale Carnegie made famous in his book "How to Win Friends and Influence People" are more likely the solution to the problem than distilling everything into bromides about corruption, developing countries, or "Communist mentalities." This is not true of every country, but in Mongolia one is better served to think the best rather than the worst of the government officials one encounters.

The point of writing all this is to remind everyone that the American Center for Mongolian Studies staff have the experience and interpersonal communication skills to effectively deal with the Mongolian bureaucracy. Our batting average is not 1.000, but it is pretty high. We often find ourselves helping scholars resolve big messes they have created for themselves (although they rarely see it that way--sigh) because they made the three mistakes above or some other unique mistake that boggles the mind. Sometimes I wonder why this is the case, and one possibility is the fact there are few people or organizations out there reminding people there is a system that is fair, somewhat effective, and quick if one works with people who actually know the rules. When in doubt, send us an e-mail: It's what we are here for.

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