Spanish bureaucracy represents one of the biggest challenges for expats. This article attempts to put it into some kind of context, and offers some practical advice about how to go about dealing with it.

Dealing with bureaucracy

A. The problem

B. The past

C. Particular circumstances in areas of high-density immigration

D. Thirteen suggestions for dealing with bureaucracy

The problem

Spanish bureaucracy is something we all have to come face to face with sooner or later. Bureaucracy in the UK is by no means perfect, but a big difference is that we understand how the system works, we’ve grown up with it, we speak the same language, and we know how to protest when things go wrong. In Spain however we feel frustrated. The first and most obvious reason is because of the language barrier, and we might be tempted to think that this is all the problem, but soon we realise that there is more to it than that. We start to see that a lot of the things that happen really are illogical, and so our frustration grows.

Of course, we are never actually dealing with the actual decision maker or with the person in power in our encourters with officialdom. We are face to face with an individual who is being paid to do a job, without necessarily understand the wider implications of it, and who is required to obey instructions. There is absolutely no point in saying to this person: “Wouldn’t it be easier to ‘¦?” “Can you explain to me why I need to ‘¦?” “Couldn’t you just pick up the phone to check that for yourself?” or even, “What exactly are you going to do with all those photocopies when you’ve got them?”

Any kind of helpful suggestion of this sort will be met with a blank face and a repetition of the instructions as though they were set in stone. Customer relations are not high on the agenda in Spain, and the American “have a nice day” philosophy has certainly not reached the Spanish civil service yet. The typical bureaucratic tendency to cover ones tracks is prevalent, as is the somewhat Spanish tendency to get entrenched rather than admit a mistake has been made. The Spanish are bad, on the whole, at backing down and admitting when they are wrong. However, do not think that the problems you face when dealing with bureaucracy represent some kind of plot against foreigners, the Spanish public are just as much victims of the situation as well.

The Past
The UK enjoys a history of long-standing, established democracy. This is not the case in Spain. Even before the Franco’s dictatorship which started in 1939 there were frequent changes of power, with each ruling government running the civil service using their own supporters. The result was a corrupt administration filled with civil servants who were dedicated to the task of making themselves indispensable by making life complicated for others.

By the time Franco achieved power he inherited a state bureaucracy that was already inefficient and corrupt. It was a system in which the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing. During the early years of Franco’s regime when poverty was rife and wages were very low, the civil service payroll was one way of providing employment, and would often even contain the names of people who were friends and family of bureaucrats. There was very little central control over these local activities.

Most people think of Franco’s regime as repressive, and it is true that political opposition was not allowed, censureship was extremely strict, and many aspects of people’s moral and social behaviour was tightly controlled. However, the regime was actually weak when it came to making people obey minor rules and regulations. People feared Franco’s regime, but they did not expect his official machinery to interfere with their everyday life, where there was a general sense of anarchy. People could triple park their cars, litter the streets with rubbish and enfringe on other people’s personal rights, without anything being done to control it. Petty squabbles would be taken to the local law courts, but law enforcement was patchy and depended a great deal of which family you belonged to. Loyalty to oneself and to one’s family was far stronger than loyalty to the common good, and a great deal of this attitude still exists today. Often if illegal or corrupt behaviour was uncovered in business practices it was dealt with by imposing a fine, and the practice of purposely breaking rules and including the “fine” as part of your “costs” is still alive and well in modern Spanish life.

The other way the Spanish state is traditionally inefficient is in raising money through taxation. Taxes have always been regarded as an imposition to be avoided if at all possible. Even the words for tax, “impuesto” (imposition) and taxpayer “contribuyente” (contributor) somehow make the process sound voluntary. The anglo-saxon mentality tells us that we must do our duty as citizens and contribute to the common good by paying our fair share. The Spanish mentality in this respect is far more ambiguous, with the state being perceived as an outside force to be distrusted and held at bay. It is therefore quite socially acceptable to find ways around laws, and to avoid all but the nominal payment of taxes.

Another aspect of this system which is still just as active today is the use of the “enchufe” (literally “plug”) who was the family member or friend who works in an office, bank or public service. This person smooths the way for you by putting your application to the top of the pile, or making sure that small irregularities are overlooked. This phenomen which is still highly prevalent amongst Spaniards, works to the disadvantages of most foreigners who do not have any inside contacts. In Spain it is still very important indeed who you know, and one of the characteristics of a “good” lawyer or gestor is that they are local and therefore know and are known by people in the various offices and government departments.

Although things have actually improved a great deal since Franco’s time, this is still very much the atmosphere in modern Spain. When the socialists came to power in the 1980s they ordered major reforms and got rid of some of the more absurb aspects of bureaucracy. The system was streamlined, wages and working hours changed, and more information given to public. However, many of the bureaucrats themselves were the same people, and it is human nature to resist change. It is also a fact that since democracy, the number of public employees has increased not decreased, and there still seems to be a prevailing attitude amongst many that their job is not to help and serve members of the public, but rather to make life as difficult as possible for them.

Particular circumstances in areas of high-density immigration

Many people reading this will have moved, or will be planning to move to areas where there is a high saturation of non-Spanish residents. In these areas the bureaucratic system is under unprecedented pressure. There may not be adequate resources to meet the new influx, and many of the people in charge are unable to cope and will have had no training in dealing with exceptional circumstances. Often the companies building houses in these areas have not fulfilled all their legal obligations, which makes the process doubly difficult for new residents. A typical example of this is when a new resident tries to register at the town hall in order to benefit from local services, for example placing their children into local schools. Often this cannot be done because the house they live in has been built without the required licenses, and therefore the local government does not officially recognise its existence. This leads to a bureaucratic dead-lock and people may feel they are being dealt with inconsiderately, with nobody offering them any advice to resolve their problem. To find yourself in this position when you have just moved into your new home can cause tremendous discouragement stress, and depression. To avoid this happening to you, it is vital that you do your own research before committing yourself to a property, that you fully understand everything you are signing, and that you seek legal services independent from your builder or estate agent.

In more general terms the volume of foreigners in some areas raises problems for which the system is simply not prepared. There are many examples of this in schools, police departments, health centres and government offices and the results can be immensely frustrating. The situation sometimes gives rise to regulations varying from office to office, from region to region and even between different members of staff. One can only hope that eventually these problems will be resolved and in the meantime confront the situation with a certain amount of calm and philosophy. It would be very sad indeed if difficulties with bureaucrats coloured people’s feelings about the country as a whole.

Thirteen suggestions for dealing with bureaucracy.

Don’t expect it to be straightforward. Multiply the time you think something will take by at least 6 and you might be somewhere near it. Then if it is quick and straightforward – it’s a bonus!

Don’t expect people to speak English. People over a certain age, were not taught English at school, but French. Young people are often able to read English but may speak it badly.

Remember that the first person you confront is NOT the person making decisions, even if they behave like it.

Don’t be intimidated, they are acting a part and following instructions. They don’t really know the law in depth, or understand all the finer points, but they are not going to admit that to you. They will make sure they do not lose face.

Keep calm, it’s pointless losing your temper. If you have a problem you should keep insisting politely. Even with bad Spanish you can say “lo siento, no entiendo” and keep repeating your question. They will want to get rid of you, but when they see that they can’t, they will eventually pass you on to someone who can either speak English, or even be able to do something about your problem.

Recognise when you’re being fobbed off. A good ploy for getting rid of a troublesome person is instruct them that they have a document missing so should go away and come back with it. By the time you’re back, there’ll be a different person behind the desk, and they’ll tell you it wasn’t necessary to get that extra document. In other words, the first person achieved their aim, which was to get you off their back.

If you are getting nowhere with one person, go away and come back when someone else is behind the desk. You might have more luck.

Deal with things in person, not in writing. Spain has a face to face culture. Writing a polite or even an angry letter will not work, it can just be put at the bottom of a pile. The only written submission you should make are on an official form with an official number, such as you get in the Town Hall if you wish to make any kind of complaint or application, a denuncia at the police station or a “hoja de reclamación” – complaints form. All of these are officially controlled and therefore can be traced and have to be followed up. Otherwise, go in person (with a translator if necessary) and ask to speak to relevant person. Be prepared to wait for them.

Don’t expect to be informed when something is processed. Go yourself and find out. However, any important legal decision made about you will be sent to you by registered post.

If you think that you are living in Europe and therefore the rules should be the same here as everywhere else, don’t bother saying it to anyone. You are right, of course, but in fact Europe has no power to oblige member countries to enforce its rules, and if they don’t your only option is to complaint to the European courts. Good luck.

Never attempt to bribe in any way, shape or form.

Learn to live with ambiguity. The Anglo-Saxons like black and white, right or wrong, legal or illegal. The Spanish way is ambiguous. If you push the point you’ll be told what the rule book says. Officials are used to accommodating unofficial ways of doing things. If they want to they can throw the rulebook at you, but if you don’t cross them, they probably won’t bother.

Remember the expression “en tramites”. It means “in process” or “in the pipeline” and will often suffice to prove that you are in the process of applying for something, even if it hasn’t yet been granted. You must keep copies of receipts of applications, which prove they are “en tramites”.

© Jane Cronin