A Tale of Administrative Woe

Transforming our misery into magic

First, some context:

My day job involves preparing license applications for the California Dept. of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). We find out what kind of business a client wants to operate — restaurant, bar, bottle shop, brewery — gather the necessary information and put the required forms together with supporting documents. We then coordinate to get those forms hand-signed (as no e-signatures are accepted), notarized, recorded at the county recorder and submitted.

The application is such a pain that we often get clients who have started on it, full of confidence, got very confused, and suddenly decided that we are worth our substantial fee. The process on the state government level hasn’t changed much in decades, and the bureaucracy of it is unbearable to frenetic hospitality professionals. It demands a certain patience and meticulousness that they are generally neither willing nor able to muster on paperwork.

And we’re quite good at it, it being our profession. We know what needs to go where, how to anticipate ABC’s requests, and what will definitely get an application kicked back. It’s made me better at filling out forms of any kind, a skill I really appreciate as there’s just something about forms that’s terrifying to a lot of people. It’s not lost on me that clients pay us most of all to eliminate that stress.

Even so, I’ll be honest, filling out these forms sucks. It takes us a few hours to get it all right. They are individual PDFs that weren’t designed to work with each other, so they have to be filled out separately. There is information required on multiple forms that has to be input repeatedly. If a mistake is made, we’d have to refill them, scanning dry text for accuracy. We at least had them formatted so that you could easily tab to the next field, but when California elected Gavin Newsom as Governor, all the forms were updated with his name and whoever created these new PDFs took obviously pleasure in my misery. The cursor jumps randomly from the first field to the fifth, then eighth. It’s not a hard fix, but tedious, and something about this setback pushed me over the edge. There had to be a better way.

First I asked our print service company to find us a solution. They got a third party quote for seventy five thousand dollars. HAAHAHAHASEVENTYFIVETHOUSANDDOLLARS. I’m sure all of Oakland heard me guffaw when I read that proposal.

Then I got the notion that I could hack it. Somewhere I learned about Excel Macros and I figured I’d spend a weekend learning to use it. If you’re unfamiliar with Macros, as I was until only recently and find myself again, this is akin to learning Latin in a few days.

None of these ideas were working. I was too busy with incoming work to find time to figure it out. What could we do?

My colleague recently announced that her friend, a tech-savvy woman in her late twenties, was interested in working with us. She’s moving to the Bay Area in late April, so it occurred to me that we could start her on some of the projects that were flitting around my head before she arrives. We’d have a trial run to see how we work together, I could get some items off my ‘to do’ list, and she’d get a cash reserve for her move to our expensive city. Everybody wins. The first item on the agenda? Fix these god damn forms.

Even better, create a master form where we input information once and it auto-populates, accurately and instantaneously. It would be, quite simply, a dream come true for a band of liquor license consultants. A pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Hozier showing up on a Saturday morning in a black ‘64 Jaguar E-Type, giving me a private show, and then driving us down the PCH with our hair blowing in the wind.

Amy started on this last week and can tell you I almost cried from joy after seeing what she put together in just a few hours. The form actually changes intelligently depending on what selections we make. Restaurant? It then asks what kind of food you’re serving. Corporation? A field appears for the incorporation date. It intuitively moves through the requirements on the application based on what’s easier for the user, not the bureaucrat who designed them literally before the advent of the computer. It’s still a work in progress, but the idea is that once these fields are filled in on the marvelous form Amy created, the correct ABC documents will populate, ready to print and sign. It may sound silly, but it’s become one of my most satisfying undertakings to date.

This has been an extremely long-winded demonstration of one juicy point: the part we dread the most points to the greatest potential delight.

I’ve experienced this many times.

The section of a painting that looks like trash during most of the process, making me question why I spend my time doing this, comes together somehow at the end to be the most interesting or effective.

The part of a room that annoys me the most becomes everyone’s favorite after a good declutter or redecoration.

The project I resist irritably ends up being my best work.

Do I wish I would have tried to fix our form process years ago? Of course I do, it’s ridiculous admitting I worked like this for 6 years. As one friend said, I deserve some kind of medal. But more importantly, it finally happened. With our approx. 200 applications per year, this fix will save us thousands of hours. And it will transform a mind-numbing, frustrating task into something one might actually consider fun.

This is great news. The areas of our lives that are needling, infuriating, or distracting us are potential highlights. Where are you tolerating something because ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ or you just haven’t put thought into other ways, better ways, of doing it? Maybe the process was innovative for another time or functional for another person, but as the queen of clean Ms. Marie Kondo reminds us, if it doesn’t spark our joy, it’s gotta go.

We don’t realize how much say we have to make our own lives better through curiously examining what we do and how we do it. If it’s agonizing, maybe it’s just not done yet. Maybe it needs a little more attention, some fresh eyes, an overhaul.

We may not have the power to convince a government agency to make their process more efficient, but we do have power over our own processes, our own boundaries, and our own mentality. Once I stop using a problem as a reason to complain and instead take ownership of it, I have found, one hundred percent of the time, there are options. There are always untapped resources, new technology, or a smart millennial who needs a job.

Hence, my administrative woes are not long for this world. I can’t say they’ll be missed, but they have been a powerful reminder that if it’s aggravating, I don’t have to tolerate it forever. And neither do you. Reclaim your process and watch it alter to your liking. I can say with absolute confidence, there is happiness waiting on the other side.

Written by

A thinking thot.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store