Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 35;   August 27, 2008: Stonewalling: Part II

Stonewalling: Part II

by

Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction. Some less sophisticated tactics rely on misrepresentation to gum up the works. Those that employ bureaucratic methods are more devious. What can you do about stonewalling?
A section of stone wall at Pueblo Bonito

A typical section of the oldest stone walls at Pueblo Bonito in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico. Although this type of wall (there are five types at Chaco) is made of stone chinked with mud mortar, it nevertheless has the property that removal of any one stone has only a limited effect on wall integrity. So it is with bureaucratic stonewalling — overcoming any single obstacle is unlikely to open a clear path to the goal. To defeat bureaucratic stonewalling you have to assault the wall at multiple points nearly simultaneously, which requires considerable resources. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

In Part I of our discussion of stonewalling tactics, we looked at ploys that involve misrepresentations. In this Part II, we explore tactics that rely on bureaucratic behavior.

Appeal to authority
The appeal to authority is a transfer of responsibility for the obstruction from the stonewaller to someone whose authority you dare not question. Usually, the invoked authority is a co-conspirator. Example: "Personally, I'd like to tell you, but I've been instructed to withhold that information until it can be released."
The need to invoke authority is tantamount to an admission of weakness. Press your case. One possible response to the appeal to authority: "OK, thanks, I'll just ask her." Of course, if the authority is a co-conspirator, this is somewhat risky, because the stonewaller might just say, "OK, knock yourself out." An alternative: "OK, I'll see what I can find out elsewhere." Because the alternative is non-specific, stonewallers sometimes take such responses more seriously.
Continued study
At the organizational scale, this tactic takes the form of chartering commissions, creating task forces, or adding the issue to the agenda of next month's committee meeting. At the personal scale, the response is of the form, "I don't know just now, but I'll research it and get back to you," or, "I don't decide that, but I'll look into it for you." It's a delay, rather than a denial.
At the organizational scale, this tactic is available only to those who control resources. As such, it's an abuse of power, and only those who have greater organizational power can counter it. At the personal scale, it's an excuse so flimsy that it would be foolish to use it unless it's already backed up by more powerful means. Here, too, power is required for an effective response. If you expect that the stonewaller might employ this tactic, find a powerful ally first, and make the alliance clear along with your request.
Major Major Major
To defeat bureaucratic stonewalling
you have to assault the wall at
multiple points nearly simultaneously
This tactic is one of avoidance (named after the character in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (Order from Amazon.com). The obstructor is unavailable to the obstructed, and rarely returns email or phone calls relevant to any inquiry.
To contact the obstructor, you'll have to use extraordinary methods. Call at odd hours from varying telephones so as to defeat Caller ID. If you're co-located, drop by after hours or before hours. If you're willing to deny it or blame it on a glitch, write code to send email or text messages every three minutes for eight hours. Anything you can do to include humor might be helpful: send a carved pumpkin, gift-wrapped in a box, with your inquiry inside it.

Bureaucratic stonewallers are more difficult to detect, because their methods appear to be prudent and routine — similar to business as usual. But when they fit a pattern of obstruction, there's usually little doubt. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Advantages of Political Attack: Part I  Next Issue

For more about obstructionist tactics generally, see "Obstructionist Tactics: Part I," Point Lookout for July 23, 2008.

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