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It Was A Wonderful Life: My Odyssey with Bank of America

This technology-driven, partly outsourced, too-big-to-fail bureaucracies of today are more difficult to maneuver than that of yesteryear. And the frustration and angst it breeds are one reason the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements resonate with Americans.
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The origin of the word "credit" is the idea of "trust." Judging from the success of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and the readiness with which we are swiping our credit cards, there's plenty of trust to go around. But my recent 20-plus hours on the phone with no fewer than 20 Bank of America representatives indicate otherwise. And as a student of complex organizations, I've been pondering what happens to society when trust is no longer woven into our interactions with the bureaucracies on which we rely, be they corporate or government.

I was trying to clear my credit record after a mortgage lender told me my otherwise stellar credit history -- which I hoped would win me a favorable interest rate -- was severely damaged because of an overdue Bank of America credit card balance. When I'd cancelled--or thought I cancelled -- my card last May, I was told I had a zero balance. I had a cancellation number and the ID number of the customer service representative I talked with to prove it. Straightening things out would be easy, I thought.

Not so fast. I proceeded from Derrick and Deena in customer service in Southern California to John, a customer service supervisor, to Felipe in the privacy source department in _____ (he was not authorized to say) to Carolyn in the credit department (a totally different phone number) to Adam in credit protection (Omaha) to Elsa in the credit department (or was it card services?) in Georgia to Julia in external customer relations to Delia in the escalations department to Sophia, also in escalations, and Carol in Ohio. Back to customer services (Dan) and then Heather in card services, Kenton in the credit department, Susan in online banking and deposits in South Carolina and -- sandwiched somewhere in there -- Jim, a manager at the call center.

My odyssey, and an entire pad scribbled with notes to prove it, transported me back to an unlikely place: communist Poland under martial law in the early 1980s. I recalled six hours one afternoon on hold, waiting to place an international call. Was I now up against the same kind of behemoth that was communist bureaucracy? The sense of helplessness, the gut-wrenching frustration and mounting anger -- it sure felt the same.

Feeling victimized by bureaucracy is something we've all experienced, especially these days. (And my point is not to single out Bank of America -- the people I talked with tried to help, but they were defeated by their own system.) Whether we're trying to decipher health insurance (ever tried to figure out what is covered or dispute a charge that should be covered?), get the attention of a giant utility when the power is out, or secure veterans medical benefits , we're up against an insidious form of bureaucracy. This technology-driven, partly outsourced, too-big-to-fail bureaucracy is more difficult to maneuver than that of yesteryear. And the frustration and angst it breeds are one reason the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements resonate with Americans.

Today's bureaucracy is characterized by the following:

It is organized into silos. Despite our networked age, people are trained to know only what's in their own tiny bailiwick and information doesn't travel across it. Carol in Ohio in the credit analysis department had never heard of the cancellation numbers or station numbers that I was assigned by another Bank of America unit. The information given by one division may be flat wrong according to another, which may not even be authorized to communicate beyond its bounds. So one unit can send you a letter but isn't authorized to send it to another division in the company. You have to do that.

The system can get to you, but you cannot get to it. For instance, you cannot get a direct number to anyone. A customer service representative can call you (and sometimes even will), but you cannot call him. You are relegated to the phone tree, but if you press a wrong button (and when your problem doesn't fit the phone-tree schema, how can you know?), you might as well start all over.

Any slightly unusual issue is outside organizational competence. If your problem has no addressee, you will likely cycle through scores of false leads, before getting to a party authorized to tackle it.

No one is in charge. The organizational chain of command is convoluted and illusive, so it's virtually impossible to identify the levers of power or figure out where and how to intervene. While you likely can talk to a supervisor (if you want to remain on hold long enough), you can't find out the name of that supervisor's supervisor--much less get to him or her. And a lot of work is contracted out, making it even more difficult to establish who has authority.

Nobody (except you) really has a stake in the outcome. Employees are judged by whether they complete the prescribed checklist and say the right things--not by whether they solve the problem.

• When it's not clear who is in charge and no one has a stake in the outcome, it's impossible to establish who, if anyone, is accountable.

The organization does not make mistakes - only you do. No one is authorized to acknowledge that a mistake was made. Yes, they can try to solve the problem to the best of their ability within their own silo, but they can't say (or, God forbid, put in writing) that the organization made a mistake.

While an organization can damage your quality of life (or your credit), it won't reverse the damage by correcting an error (say, by sending corrected information to a credit agency). You have to send that information yourself, or enlist a costly outside service to do it.

As I write in Shadow Elite , bureaucracies have grown so large and amorphous, with such convoluted chains of command, that it's often impossible for us to identify who is in charge and where and how to intervene in the system on our own behalf. It's no accident that the elusive quality of bureaucracy mirrors that of the perceived enemy and demands of the OWS movement. And, because it's so difficult to pinpoint the levers of power and who is responsible for the mess we're in, frustration builds... and builds.

Exasperated, I tried to fix my problem the old-fashioned way. Hoping to appeal face-to-face to a physically present person, look him in the eye and establish a sense of trust, I walked into a local B of A branch. I was greeted by Charles. We were joined by Bob, who called in Ronald, the bank manager. All were sympathetic and eager to assist. But what could they do? Only get on the phone and call into... the same phone tree.

Even under communism, with its quintessentially big, bad bureaucracy, many citizens found a way out, albeit a far from optimal one. The surest way to have your problem solved quickly was to pay a bribe. But in today's too-big-to fail bureaucracies, how would we even know who to bribe? We're losing our patience, and--because, fortunately, this is a democracy--more of us are protesting. On the face of it, the protests may be about widening inequality and an economy in the toilet. But our frustration with how the private and governmental organizations we deal with every day betray our trust is also part of the equation.

My Bank of America problem was eventually resolved, I believe, because customer service representatives didn't appreciate my comparison of their organization with communist bureaucracy. I found that they paid attention when I pointed out the similarities. If we want to have some modicum of control over our livelihoods, our health care, and our security, we'd better pay attention. Do we really want out-of-control bureaucracies to continue running our lives?

Can I help you with anything else today?

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