Obstructive Bureaucrat

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Bear in mind that these are the sorts of people whose sense of achievement is measured in reams of paper and time wasted.

This guy is the ultimate pencil pusher from a government agency, and he creates the red tape that normal citizens hate. He's an unlikeable Punch Clock Villain with a bad temper and a sizable streak of callousness. Works for any and all bureaucracies, including Department of Child Disservices, banks and possibly even your own afterlife.

Sometimes he can be restored to humanity by uncovering the secret dream buried deep beneath his efficient exterior. Failing that, you may be able to use his respect for Exact Words against him.

On the other hand, sometimes he is obstructing a Matter of Life and Death. Threat of force, or actual force, may be needed to get by him. A common cause of Divided We Fall. Many a surreptitious entry into, or exit from, a location, or requisition of supplies, is needed because it would take too long to get by him.

Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy is always in effect: "In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely." Almost all this form-filling out serves no useful purpose; for the hero to put in a list that will allow him access to a facility, for instance, is a very rare subversion.

Rarely, in a Matter of Life and Death, a benevolent Obstructive Bureaucrat will go and obstruct the villain. He may actively devise regulations to impede and hinder him, and then, with the same mindless fervor as any other bureaucrat, insist on their being followed to the letter.

The tropes: Beleaguered Bureaucrat, Department of Child Disservices, and Social Services Does Not Exist; overlap since they all involve the same problems. The employees are often overworked, underpaid, lack resources, and suffer the public’s wrath. They then turn into the Obstructive Bureaucrat and use Bothering by the Book to slow down the workload or get revenge on the people who make unreasonable demands.

This trope also has a darker version, where the character is still a government employee concerned with the bottom line, but what he does in daily work probably violates the Geneva Convention. He is likely to be a murderer and/or a torturer who defends himself by saying "I'm just doing my job". In short, he is a Well-Intentioned Extremist whose overriding motivation is being Employee of the Month.

Note that this is not the same as the Knight Templar, another type of Well-Intentioned Extremist. The Knight Templar does horrible things for some greater good, whereas the Obstructive Bureaucrat has no concept of "greater good", and cares only about following procedure, or rather believes that procedure is equivalent to the "greater good". He's not just prone to Just Following Orders: as long as the orders match the rules he thinks it's his job to enforce and follow, Just Following Orders is what he is all about.

If he has no idea that the job he's doing is evil, he may be a Clueless Deputy. This sort of Obstructive Bureaucrat can be drawn into a Heel Face Turn or Freak-Out more readily than one who does know and just feels it's none of his business (a fella's gotta eat)...

For a character who isn't so much obstructive as much as overworked, see Beleaguered Bureaucrat.

In America, this character can also be a member of Congress (usually a senator) who is investigating the heroes.

This type of character is also known as a "jobsworth" in British slang, named for their tendency to deny a perfectly reasonable request with "That's more than my job's worth."

This species might easily proliferate around a Vestigial Empire.

See also The Barnum.

These characters tend towards Lawful Neutral, usually Lawful Stupid and sometimes Lawful Evil.

Examples of Obstructive Bureaucrat include:

Examples of the humorous version

Anime and Manga

  • Very early in Banner of the Stars, Jinto takes a requisition form to the quartermaster's office. The bureaucrat engages him in office gossip (which serves as exposition), then tells Jinto that he has run out of time to make his requisition and refuses to take the form.
  • A common joke among fans of The Rising of the Shield Hero is that the worst part of Aultcray and Malty's sentence - where they have to change their names to "Trash" and "Bitch" to avoid the death penalty - is likely having to go to the DMV to do so.

Comic Books

  • The bureaucrat from the Disney comic "Cosmic Confrontation" originally sneaked up aboard Gyro's rocket to check how many laws it violated, but when the rocket came face-to-face with a squad of giant alien constructor workers out to destroy Earth to make room for a space highway, he proceeds to use his bureaucracy to drive them away and save Earth.
  • In Judge Dredd, Mega-City One has the Bureau of Creative Bureaucracy. It's motto is "Saving the city's money by making life difficult for you!"... which is surprisingly honest for a bureaucracy.
  • In one issue of Harley Quinn 2000, the anti-heroine knows exactly how to deal with two snooty bureaucrats while apartment hunting:

Bureaucrat #1: …of course, we’ll need a copy of your current state medical license, your DEA number so we can run a check on your prescription history, and an up to date resume, as well as six letters of recommendation.
Bureaucrat #2: This is a very exclusive building.
Bureaucrat #1: If it seems like we don’t rent to just anyone, it’s because we don’t.
Bureaucrat #2: If it seems our standards are high, it’s because they are.
Bureaucrat #1: The doctors and psychiatrists here are among the best in the country.
Bureaucrat #2: The best.
Harley: I have cash.
Both Bureaucrats: Welcome to the building!

Fan Works


"This thing reads like stereo instructions!"

  • In Ghostbusters, minor EPA official Walter Peck (played to perfection by William Atherton) had the unmitigated gall to arrest the Ghostbusters for causing an explosion that he himself was responsible for when he ordered, in front of multiple witnesses, that the ghost-containment grid be shut down, despite repeated warnings (one of them from his own engineer) that would be disastrous.
    • In a deleted scene, as Gozer the Gozerian was wreaking havoc, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was smashing up the city and the End Of The World was quite seriously nigh, Peck's response was to grab a fleeing police officer and order him to go up to arrest the Ghostbusters for "going too far". Said officer's response, not unreasonably, was "You go and arrest them!"
    • Atherton played the part to such perfection that he had a serious problem with being typecast for a while afterward; not that no one thought he could play anything other than an Obstructive Bureaucrat, but that no one liked him, period. He does, fittingly, reprise the role in Ghostbusters: The Videogame, which suggests that Peck is actually a subversion, a Gozer cultist who knows full-well how absurd his behavior is, and is doing it intentionally to stop the Ghostbusters from opposing Gozer. Though by the end, this is revealed to be a Red Herring, as he's just an Unwitting Pawn.
    • In Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, Peck hasn't changed a bit, and is just as obstructive as Mayor of New York.
  • Secretary of Defense Albert Nimziki in Independence Day. He knowingly concealed the fact that the aliens had visited Earth before, even after they became hostile and any information would have been immensely helpful. He only admits it after the first failed attack and David's father draws attention to the supposed "myth" of the Roswell crash. He wants to continue nuking the aliens even after the first attempt proves that their shields can resist the bombs. Then he has the call to insist that David's plan, which he had demonstrated could actually work, is a bad idea and tries to talk the president out of it. At this point, the president gets tired of his crap and fires him.
  • Gilbert Huph, Insuricare Middle Manager from The Incredibles. His job is explicitly to see that Every. Single. Claim., no matter how valid or dire that is made against Insuricare is denied. He sees his clients as his stockholders, openly chafes at laws that protect policyholders, and mocks a man Bob sees getting mugged and beaten. He's such a loathsome character that it's a minor Crowning Moment of Awesome when Bob hurls him through several walls.
  • Played for Laughs in Spider-Man 2, where Bruce Campbell, as a live-theater usher, prevents Peter Parker from attending Mary-Jane's show because he's late... and then prevents him from questioning the decision because there's no talking during the performance.
  • Disney's Mulan had Chi Fu, a government official appointed to oversee the training of the batch of recruits Mulan ended up with, who seemed to positively delight in documenting Shang's failures and the general ragtag nature of the unit in training, would have gotten Mulan killed had Shang not owed her his life, and proved to be an incredible ninny when not on duty. Though to his credit, he also seemed quite pleased when Shang or the unit actually met his unfairly high standards, and possessed enough intellectual integrity to recognize when following the rules simply wasn't possible or when The Book didn't really have anything to say about the situation.
    • It's also worth noting that Chi Fu was apparently suspicious that Shang received his position out of family connections, rather than any actual ability (Shang was a brilliant student in military training but had no field experience, and his father was the commanding general). That'd explain his overly rigorous training standards for Shang's squad, at least.
  • Galloway from Transformers insults and looks down on the Autobots, and even on Lennox, Epps and the other troops who support the Autobots. Threatens the Autobots with banishment from Earth, though it's never mentioned that he could only legally banish them from America.
  • In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the Zissou expedition is forced by their creditors to take on a "bond company stooge", and Steve immediately assumes he's going to be an Obstructive Bureaucrat. It's subverted when he turns out to be an decent, inoffensive guy, and Steve ends up mounting a rescue when he gets kidnapped by Ruthless Modern Pirates.
  • In The Brother From Another Planet, such a bureaucrat bothers the title fugitive alien, than later on has a heroic moment when she thwarts the two bounty hunters who are after him.


  • The Vogons from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are a Planet of Hats of Obstructive Bureaucrats. The Guide describes them by saying "A Vogon would not lift a finger to save his own grandmother from the Ravenous Bug-blatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, lost, found, queried, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighter."
    • The Movie plays it up when the Heart of Gold makes a Hyperspeed Escape from the Vogon armada. Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz turns to a subordinate and asks if the criminals they're pursuing filled out the proper paperwork to do this. The subordinate is shocked to find out that they did not. Later on, Arthur, Ford, and Zaphod fill out a release form for Trillian, who is about to be executed, only to be told that, since Zaphod is the President of the Galaxy, he has to submit a Presidential Release Form. Jeltz, who is all too eager to execute Trillian is instantly pacified when he receives the release form and orders her freed.
  • Harry Potter has the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, an obtuse windbag who obstructs Harry and Dumbledore's attempts to warn the world of Voldemort's return in order to protect his political career.
    • And even worse, he unleashes Dolores Umbridge on Hogwarts, a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing who all Potter fans (rightfully) love to hate.
  • Discworld
    • Thud!: A.E. Pessimal (whose initials don't actually stand for anything). Vimes unwittingly taps into Pessimal's secret dream to be a watchman after making him a Special Constable and dragging him along to quell a potential riot, under the pretense of showing Pessimal how things really work in the City Watch. It works.
      • So well that at the end of the book he joins the Watch. Pessimal is also an interesting case, as it's clear from the beginning that he's not being an Obstructive Bureaucrat out of peevishness or a sense of power, he just simply and sincerely believes in efficiency.
    • Hogfather : A traditional Obstructive Bureaucrat appears when Susan is searching for the Tooth Fairy. Although he doesn't actually obstruct Susan by demanding forms and procedure, he does obstruct her by incessantly Wangsting about his rather boring life instead of answering her questions. Susan describes him as a very small, very weak bully, who couldn't find anyone smaller or weaker than him to bully and so took to making people's lives just that little bit more difficult.
    • Soul Music: Mr. Clete of the Musicians' Guild, is a nastier version, taking genuine pleasure in the suffering of those ensnared in red tape.
    • Interesting Times: The Agatean Empire, as a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of Imperial China, has a lot of this. As Cohen puts it "You can't even go to the privy without a peice of paper."
    • Thief of Time and Hogfather both feature a group of entities known as "The Auditors." The Auditors are in charge of ensuring that rocks fall in accordance with the laws of gravity, and that light does not travel any faster than it is supposed to. They love neat, predictable objects. They despise sentient life because it is inherently unpredictable and disorderly. Thus, Thief and Hogfather both focus on plots by the Auditors to destroy humanity to keep the paperwork neat.
  • Frank Herbert's Con Sentiency universe has the "Bureau of Sabotage", whose job is to create or destroy red tape. However, BuSab obstructs the government to protect individual rights (when governments become too efficient, bad stuff occurs). Instead of paper work, the Bureau employs some rather humorous sabotage to get the job done. Jorj X. McKie, saboteur extraordinary and protagonist, subverts the trope by speeding up a meeting in one story. Also, he's a specialist in dealing with the alien mindsets (and in Con Sentiency they are really alien) standing out even in mixed-species team of BuSab, and solved more than one crisis of "go comprehend the incomprehensible before everything goes down in flames" sort.
    • The context is that since bureaucrats have to perform token activity whether it's needed or not, and bureaucracies grow too easily, eventually they start producing too much paperwork for anyone to read, including themselves, at which point the management mechanism neither itself can, nor will let anyone attached to it, do anything meaningful at all. The solution was a small task force of agents, whose main job is to obstruct the bureaucrats themselves - they "hack" the bureaucratic machine until it slows down to sane speed. They also get to deal with unique problems which cannot be solved in routine ways, since this requires much the same skill set and ingrained scepticism.
  • In Larry Niven's Inferno, the protagonist, Carpenter, finds himself in (a very Dante-like) Hell and in need to some togas to escape. Finally getting to the administrative center of Hell, he puts in a requisition for the garments and is handed a two foot tall stack of forms to complete and a single pencil. When he points out that a single pencil will never last to complete all the forms, he is told to improvise and his attention is directed to another guy nearby who is working on his own stack of forms. His pencil has been worn down to a nub and he is using a ripped out fingernail and his own blood to complete the forms.
  • In his youth, the only expression of strength and personal vengeance the mouse-like narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground could hope for was by playing this trope.
  • Catch-22 has a number of obstructive bureaucrats. Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen is a notable one—he's just a mail clerk, but has become one of the most powerful men in the military because he can simply throw away any orders he doesn't like.
    • There's also a deadlier version in the air units commander. Although never made clear why he seems to have a personal grudge against all his men and refuses to allow any pilots, or bomber crew, to return home. He specifically mentions that the U.S. Army Air Corps requires a pilot to be given some time off after 25 missions but uses an oddly worded rule, which is meant to be used in extreme circumstances, to extend the limit to first 50, 60 then 100 missions. For those unaware, a bomber crew member was likely to get injured or killed within 30 missions. He was essentially trying to kill everyone who joined his command.
      • The original rule of 25 missions was set to give the average crew about a 50/50 chance of surviving to completion. As survival odds went up, so did the required missions. The commander is just more enthusiastic about it.
  • In Norman Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, the Senses Taker insists that Milo, Tock, and the Humbug fill out stacks of forms. Then he takes their senses, trapping them in illusions. Alas for him, the gift of laughter Milo received means he can not take their senses of humor, and they can escape.
  • In Lois McMaster Bujold's The Warrior's Apprentice the Barrayaran embassy on Beta Colony maintains a bureaucratic black hole into which Betans who have grievances against Barrayaran citizens will be "swallowed up in an endless möbius loop of files, forms, and reports, kept especially for such occasions by the extremely competent staff. The forms included some particularly creative ones that had to be round-tripped on the six-week journey back to Barrayar itself, and were guaranteed to be sent back several times for minor errors in execution. ... 'It works great with Betans -- they're perfectly happy, because all the time they think they're doing something to you.'"
  • In Ellis Parker Butler's short story "Pigs is Pigs", red tape in the railroad business combined with a clerk's poor grasp of taxonomy (on the grounds that "pigs is pigs", he insists on charging a customer the larger shipment rate for livestock, rather than the cheaper rate for domestic pets, for a pair of guinea pigs) leads to the clerk's railway station being overrun by thousands of guinea pigs by the time the debate is sorted out... and by that time, the customer had moved away without leaving a forwarding address.
  • Little Dorritt by Charles Dickens has the Circumlocution Office, which is entirely made up of obstructive bureaucrats. A fair number of said bureaucrats are from the same family, the Barnacles.
  • The Bible: In the Book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon complains of the suffering caused by corrupt magistrates. Ecclesiastes is Older Than Feudalism.
  • The Leaky Establishment by David Langford: This is how the Nuclear Utilisation Technology Centre operates. While it's supposedly their job to create and maintain Britain's Independent Deterrant, that's a long term goal, whereas the Public Relations Committee meet every Tuesday, and therefore the minutes of the last meeting have to be done now. Scientists are frequently disturbed by Security men wishing to check that "valuable equipment" (cheap pocket calculators and ancient slide-rules) are still in the office and haven't been taken home, and the security measures at the front gate seem to be there purely to inconvenience people because that makes things look secure. However, since many of the scientists are rather sceptical about the nuclear deterrant they tend to the view that, while these things are hugely inconvenient for them personally, at least it stops them from actually making weapons, which is probably a good thing. (This situation is, of course, nothing like the real-world Atomic Weapons Establishment, where Langford worked for five years.)
  • All three universes in The Red Tape War suffer from near-galaxy-spanning, Obstructive Bureaucracies.
  • Artemis Fowl has quite a few of these, but the biggest one is Ark Sool.
    • Played with and subverted with Trouble Kelp.
  • The Bridge in The Menagerie series has the Emeritus Professor of Bio-Sophistry, aka the Secretary Bird, who insists on pedantically enforcing obscure bridge rules even when everybody else at the table would rather just let the offence go and get on with it. The result of the pedantic rule enforcement is never to the Secretary Bird's advantage.
  • Parodied in one of the M.Y.T.H. Inc novels. The perspective characters are trying to sabotage an army. They end up in charge of a supply depot, which they hope to use for this purpose by deliberately screwing up 10% of all supply requests. They are thwarted by Obstructive Bureaucrats in an unusual way: First, they categorically refuse to use the horrifically convoluted official record-keeping procedures, inventing their own, just because they don't want to deal with the paperwork, making the processing once requisitions get to them much faster. Second, because of the long delays caused by the bureaucrats in getting the requisitions to the supply depots, the 'accidental' mistakes often improved things (Like sending summer-weight uniforms to a unit that requested winter-weight uniforms and vice versa, not realizing that the units in question had since been redeployed to areas with warmer or colder climates). As a result, their sabotage made their depot the most efficient facility in the army.
  • In Derek Robinson's novels of the British military air forces in both world wars, the military bureaucracy gets a well-deserved Take That!
    • In War Story, the adjutant (Executive Officer), charged with keeping the squadron in essential stores, is a corrupt gambling addict at the end of a chain of corruption. As a result the airmen are on basic rations with no coal for heating as the officer charged with providing food and warmth has gambled it away. The situation is only resolved with a change of personnel and a barter system, based on food parcels containing sought-after luxury items sent by rich relatives of affluent officers. The old Adjutant is demoted and sent to a penal regiment, whose ex-con soldiers kill him when they discover he's gambled away their rum ration.
    • In Goshawk Squadron, an officious senior officer is humbled by Wooley and forced to provide the sort of luxuries only issued to General Staff officers far behind the front lines.
    • In A Piece of Cake, half the squadron's aircraft are grounded for want of essential spare parts. An unhelpful stres depot will not issue them unless the correct paperwork is filled in properly. The squadron does not have the official forms to requisition spare parts. The Air Ministry maintain these have been sent out and you're not getting any more. A new CO mounts an armed raid on the deopt and takes what he needs at gunpoint. The enraged bureaucrat catches up with the squadron in France and threatens court-martials. A killer pilot is sent to strafe his car to destruction, which is later blamed on the Luftwaffe.
    • And of course there is the vexing issue of the pilots' pay... (See under Derek Robinson)
  • In The Pale King, The Author's Foreword includes a lengthy description of all the legal issues that went along with the creation of the book. Pretty much everything involving David Foster Wallace's entry into the IRS, with the sole exception of Leonard Stecyk.
    • The horrendously complex and ultimately bungled wrongful death lawsuit after Chris Fogle's father dies.
    • After his experience in Advanced Tax class, Chris tries to make up for his mistakes by going to the dean and begging for a chance to salvage his college career. The dean laughs in his face.
  • In the Star Trek novel Death Count, the Enterprise is plagued with efficiency experts who don't quite get the distinction between rules and practice, and particularly have it in for Chekov. This is summarily resolved when two of them are murdered by an on-board saboteur, and the third is so grateful to Chekov for saving his life that he gives him a glowing report.
  • Played with some in the Monster Hunter series of novels. While normally Monster Hunter International and their government counterparts the MCB hate each other and compete with each other, the government agents usually aren't obstructive to MHI saving the day. When MCB suddenly does start turning into an obstructive bureaucracy, it's a signal to characters in both organizations that something is very wrong.

Live Action TV

  • The Pertwee era of Doctor Who is littered with these guys. They often show up, briefcase in hand, to slow down UNIT proceedings and the Doctor has to verbally bitchslap them down before he can get anything done.
    • Horatio Chinn, in "The Claws of Axos" episode, is one of these.
  • Richard Woolsey from Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis is exactly this. Even though he strictly believes in rules, he is generally benign and fair, although annoying. When he took command of Atlantis, the initial reaction was that A Tyrant Has Taken The Helm, exactly because of this trope. However, he turned out to be a capable leader after all.
    • Even once he becomes a good guy Woolsey, uniquely, remains a bureaucrat. In fact he gets a few CMOA out of his skills as a lawyer and underhanded politician.
      • Senator Kinsey also counts. In his first appearance he tries to get the Stargate Program shut down, under the guise that it's a money pit and exposes the Earth to unnecessary dangers. While he's right, the fact that he's trying to take on a more advanced race with regular weapons and believes God wouldn't let them lose is what cements him as this trope. Later on, he's shown to be working with a Government Conspiracy that wants to handle interplanetary relations their way, accusing the SGC of being "too soft". This includes them slaughtering millions of Jaffa, not caring whether the planets they attack are home to Free Jaffa or Jaffa that serve the Goa'uld, thus tacking on "hypocrite" to the above (which he also justifies by citing the Bible).
        • Kinsey's actions, even as part of a conspiracy, are absolutely ungodly stupid. They seem to believe that they could defeat the Goa'uld by stealing certain pieces of alien technology from the Tolan, Tok'ra, and even Asgard and Ancient tech. They never seem to consider that without the help of these guys, especially the Asgard, Earth would have been conquered, glassed and/or shattered by at least a dozen different bad guys.
        • There's also the fact that his initial objection about exposing Earth to alien threats ignores the fact that you can't put the genie back in the bottle. Earth had already been exposed to the Goa'uld, and shutting down the Stargate program wouldn't make them go away or ignore Earth. It would just require them to take (very slightly) longer to attack using spaceships (a point made by Col. O'Neill in the pilot and during the episode in question). Which they do. The very next episode. Understandably, after the shit had barely missed the fan, the rest of the government told Kinsey to put a sock in it and overruled him.
    • Camile Wray of Stargate Universe, given her status as a member of the IOA. Of course, she is also trying to take over the ship, so she's the darker variant. She gets better after things have settled down.
  • In the American version of The Office, Michael Scott definitely thinks Toby Flenderson qualifies as one of these. Toby is actually a much more sympathetic character than Michael gives him credit for, even to the point of Woobiefication to some viewers.
  • The central premise of the Amy Poehler comedy Parks and Recreation is the Inversion of this trope. Poehler's character, Leslie Knope, is a naively optimistic bureaucrat who cares for the people of her small town and is seemingly oblivious to the fact that no one else does.
    • Ron Swanson picked up the Obstructive Bureaucrat ball and ran with it. Namely because he's a Straw Capitalist / Libertarian who thinks government programs like parks should be abolished in favor of children spending their time at private, for-profit entertainment outfits like Chuck E. Cheese.
  • Quatermass 2. During The Infiltration these oppose the scientist hero's attempts to uncover the truth about the Alien Invasion. Some oppose the hero out of petty authoritarianism, others because they're possessed by aliens, and others interestingly enough help the hero because as experienced members of the system they realise something 'odd' is happening. One of the latter even lampshades this trope.

Fowler: "Quatermass, we've had dealings for a number of years. You as a driving force of an enterprise of the future; I as one of the obstructive civil servants you have to contend with."

  • Otto Palindrome from Quark, who often sends Quark on various garbage picking missions.
  • This trope occurs enough times in Gavin and Stacey that one has to wonder whether the creators have been on the receiving end of this trope in Real Life once too often.
  • In Lexx, the entire city of Hogtown in the afterlife for evil souls is populated by these types. The devil simply leaves them to their own devices, preferring to avoid contact with them.
  • In Spaced, Daisy Steiner does not have a good time in the Job Centre: "No, this is the A-b form, you need the A-B form, capital B." The clerk responds to any question with a simpering smile and an inane, "I'm sorry, I don't understand."—although this is partly because Daisy's making a transparent attempt to claim benefits for the period she spent on holiday in Asia and the clerk, whilst definitely an example of this trope, has clocked exactly what she's up to. Tim Bisley, on the other hand, has a rather different experience, being fast-tracked through the system thanks to a shared difference of opinion regarding The Phantom Menace.
  • In Nickelodeon's TV show The Adventures of Pete and Pete, the younger Pete befriends Clothing Inspector #27, who proceeds to make the entire neighborhood rule mongers equal to himself. Finally defeated when Pete challenges him to an eating contest of barbeque chicken. Inspector 27 finishes every bit of meat on his chicken without getting a bit of sauce on his hands or clothes. Only to be reminded by Dad "You're supposed to get dirty eating chicken." Causing Clothing Inspector 27 to realize the error of his ways, and not be such a perfectionist.
  • Dean and Sam from Supernatural meet quite a few of these in their Monster of the Week scenarios, but are very, very good at getting round them. Mostly because they have a seemingly limitless supply of fake identification.
  • Elevated to an art form by Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister.
    • As a matter of fact, pretty much the entire British civil service is portrayed as such in those series.
      • On the other hand, you do see their perspective on things—though the writer clearly disagrees, the Civil Service seems to genuinely believe that it knows what's best for the country, and Humphrey himself is hardly a one-dimensional character. He actually gets a fair number of sympathetic moments in. In the end, you see that they're still Obstructive Bureaucrats, but also see that there's a kind of twisted method to their obstructiveness. And the (very) few times when the goals of the politicians matched theirs, their efficiency is deadly.
      • There are also times when Minister Hacker successfully adopted Humphrey's methods with devastating effect, such as the time he arranged for a 'good will' visit of British troops...to a country that had just had a surprise invasion.
  • The humourless foyer administrator in the children's TV show Lift-Off dug up a rule banning something new every episode...including, at one point, a ban sign with a mirror on it. That one backfired when they got him to turn it around.
  • 24 always had one in there to get in the way of stopping a terrorist attack. The most memorable of which being Ryan Chappelle in the first three seasons, who essentially was an insufferable pain in the ass that got in Jack's way everywhere he went, yet had arguably the most emotionally-jarring death of the series.
    • Briefly subverted on Day 5 by Lynn McGill. When Jack (who had been in hiding for two years) uses an out-of-date distress code, McGill is the only one anal and methodical enough to recognize and research it, thereby saving the day. Of course, after that brief moment, he reverts to playing this trope completely straight, eventually crossing into Tyrant Takes the Helm territory.
  • In Ashes to Ashes, Jim Keats is initially made out to be this.
  • This trope is the premise of the Austrian show MA 2412, with the Obstructive Bureaucrats as protagonists.


  • The 'song' "LAMC" by Tool, chronicling one man's lone and futile struggle against the automatic telephone response system of the Los Angeles Municipal Court.

Tabletop Games

  • In Paranoia, red tape is one of the many perils of life in Alpha Complex: for example, Troubleshooters might be forced to fill out Personal Authorized Handmounted Firearm Requisition Application Forms (in triplicate) to get laser guns so they can defend themselves from a horde of rampaging mutants.
    • While being shot at by said mutants, no less.
    • Source materials encourage this, even suggesting a GM may send forms other than what players requested and then execute them for treason if they fail to fill them out correctly or protest that they got the wrong ones.
      • Another favorite: the equipment they need is available at their clearance level for once, but the requisition form for said equipment isn't. Or, for experimental equipment, the instructions aren't.
  • In the Dungeons & Dragons Planescape setting, modrons are a race of Lawful Stupid semi-mechanical beings. They are very close to Hive Mind when working with other modrons but tend to turn into obstructive bureaucrats whenever they interact with other species. Like Vogons, they can easily push it to the lethal extreme.
  • There are two uses for the Bureaucracy skill and its related Charms in Exalted. One is to evade these characters. The other is to become one. With the Charms, you can magically aid your obstructions to be nearly insurmountable.
  • The Vilani Imperium in Traveller is a Vestigial Empire composed of these. They were completely incapable of running the war against the Terrans because of this. Interestingly, they were deliberately designed this way to ensure that the Imperium ran on autopilot and had as little disorder as possible. As there hadn't been a real enemy for thousands of years, it made sense in its day.
  • Dominion. In this early-Renaissance-themed deck-building card game, the Bureaucrat is an Attack card that forces everyone else to move some useless-in-game cards (which are sort of like deeds to lands) to the top of their decks. These cards therefore take up space in one's hand for two turns in a row, and the Bureaucrat player gets a shiny coin for his trouble.
  • In the Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game Dark Heresy, one of the locations described is the "Scrivener's System" of Prol, an entire solar system filled almost completely with Obstructive Bureaucrats. There is literally a civil war brewing in the Prol system because they're running out of places to store all the paperwork.
  • In The Spoils CCG, a number of cards from the Banker trade are bureaucrats created from the reanimated corpses of those who died in debt. They must pay back their debts to their lenders (a process one card implies takes roughly 500 years), and are mostly used a pencil-pushers to deal with the poor and undesirables the bank has no interest in lending money to, drowning them under mountains of paperwork. Mechanically, their function is to tie up the opponent's resources (for example, depleting their Character cards to no effect). One card's flavor text sums up the experience rather aptly: "Could I please speak to a living person?"


  • William Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. The jailor wonders whether he should let Paula bring the newborn princess out of jail.

Gaol.: Madam, if't please the queen to send the babe,
I know not what I shall incur to pass it,
Having no warrant.
Paula: You need not fear it, sir:
The child was prisoner to the womb, and is
By law and process of great nature thence
Freed and enfranchis'd; not a party to
The anger of the king, nor guilty of,
If, any be, the trespass of the queen.

Video Games

  • The Stellar Patrol in the Infocom games Planetfall and Stationfall administers an enormous galaxy-wide bureaucracy. Your mission at the start of Stationfall is to pick up a supply of Request for Stellar Patrol Issue Regulation Black Form Binders Request Form Forms.
  • In Magical Starsign, the Space Police have an absurdly obstructive bureaucracy, as your party discovers when they ask them for help finding their missing teacher, and are redirected through dozens of different departments before finally getting a meeting with the local lieutenant, only to find out that the Space Police have a policy of obstructing people asking for their help in order to keep their officers safe.
  • The text adventure game Bureaucracy is all about this. In the course of trying to sort out a snafu caused by a change of address, the main character must confront not only obstructive bureaucrats, but a tribe of cannibals, an antisocial hacker, and an angry llama, all while trying to avoid getting so stressed out they have a fatal aneurysm.
  • Though the bureaucrats themselves are never actually seen, the Peacekeeper faction in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri has such extensive bureaucracy that it gives them an automatic penalty to efficiency.
  • Donnel Udina in Mass Effect serves this role to Shepard, caring only for looking good politically.
    • There's also Rannadril Ghan Swa Fulsoom Karaten Narr Eadi Bel Anoleis, who as the administrator of Port Hanshan on Noveria, sits halfway between Obstructive Bureaucrat and Corrupt Corporate Executive. Fortunately, you can acquire evidence of his corruption (demanding large kickbacks from corporate interests who want to operate on Noveria to the point that it is damaging profits for Noveria as a whole) and get him arrested or killed.
    • Shepard can threaten to get Illium's own obstructive bureaucracy involved in Mass Effect 2 when trying to convince a Synthetic Insights representative to buy a contract for an "indentured servant". The representative is extremely quick to take up the contract because they don't want the bureaucracy to get involved.
    • Councilor "We have dismissed that claim" Sparatus.
  • SimCity 4 combines this, Shaped Like Itself and the Department of Redundancy Department into the Bureau of Bureaucracy building. Its description? "The bureau that handles bureaucracy".
  • Go through anyone's mind in Psychonauts and you will find hundreds of these guys running around Censoring thoughts that should not be there. Normally, this is vital to the mental health of whoever owns the brain. But consider, technically you're not supposed to be in there either.

Web Comics

  • In Freefall, Mr. Kornada and the Mayor both qualify as these.[context?]
  • Protocol Officer Quine of Starslip is a humorous examination of the default characterization of these characters: when he's introduced, he sounds like a typical regulations lawyer who is unceremoniously killed in his first away mission. Then we are introduced to his personal resurrection machine (that creates a clone of him and transfers his consciousness to it whenever he dies) and he gradually starts morphing into a Butt Monkey who is just trying to do his job surrounded by people who openly insult him for no reason other than the fact that he's the only guy willing to apply regulations on what is ostensibly a military vessel and often getting killed in the process. The pinnacle of this was a recent storyline where he used his machine to "single handedly" (in other words, going through a lot of dead clones) to take back the Paradigm from hijackers and saving the lives of the rest of the crew...only for Vanderbeam to berate him for taking too long and giving all the credit to his dead clones. Poor guy.
    • He ultimately turns out to be a good guy when he is confronted with just how corrupt the government really is. Even then, he is slightly conflicted about breaking laws. Then his wife points out that the government's leadership is betraying the founding principles of the government, so Quine's "insubordination" is actually nothing of the sort.
  • The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob: on Butane, the planet of dragons, Legate Zippobic seems to be this, although he views himself as a Beleaguered Bureaucrat.
  • Evil Diva: Hell's complaint department just puts people on hold.
  • Daisy Owl And she's pleasant, and agrees that the fees are unreasonable, to add insult to injury.
  • In Sinfest, the forms to sell your soul.
  • Luna's bureaucracy in Schlock Mercenary is completely ridiculous, requiring private contractors to fill redundant information on 300 pages of paperwork (this is the short form) before they can get some work from the government, forbidding automation of this process (even using a sapient A.I. to make it quick is considered borderline), the bureau of licences in their capital city is so damn slow that people have been waiting in a queue of 20,000 for 18 months, although their archaic computer system may be partly to blame, and getting paid for a contract with the government can also take several years. Everything seems to have been made agonizingly long and slow on purpose.

Western Animation

  • Hermes Conrad, and various other agents of the Central Bureaucracy, from Futurama. They even have a neat psuedo-Villain Song about it in "How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back".

Hermes: (singing) When push comes to shove, you gotta do what you love, even if it's not a good idea!

  • Principal Bone from Doug was one of these characters. He had a seemingly never-ending list of rules for student behavior that made it almost impossible to do anything that wasn't against the rules somehow. In one episode, Doug daydreams of himself as his superhero alter-ego Quailman, who battles "The Rulemeister", a Control Freak that looks and sounds exactly like Mr. Bone, and who is eventually defeated by being trapped in his own rules. Mr. Bone catches him and grabs his comic away, causing Doug to point out that "No grabbing other people's comic books" is one of his rules, and manages to convince Mr. Bone to let him and the other kids out of detention. In another episode, Quailman battles the "Robo-Bones", robot versions of Mr. Bone. Rather than trapping Bone with his own rules as in the previous example, Doug uses the "Secret Dream" version of escape by convincing the Robo-Bones to become a professional yodeling troupe.
  • In the Asterix film The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, the eighth task is to find Permit A-38 in "The House That Drives You Mad", an office full of Roman bureaucrats. After getting the runaround for a bit, Asterix turns the tables on the bureaucrats by tricking them into looking for a bogus form, and after the place is in total disarray, they give him permit A-38 just to get rid of him.
  • Darkwing Duck sometimes works with an Interpol-like spy organization called SHUSH. One SHUSH bureaucrat, a Russian bear named Vladimir Goodenov Grizzlikov, loathes Darkwing and his unpredictable methods; Grizzlikov treats his agency's manual as if it were his Bible. (By contrast, Darkwing's immediate supervisor is too impressed by Darkwing's excellent track record to object to his unorthodox techniques.) Subverted in "The Darkwing Squad", in which SHUSH retrains a team of agents to fight crime in Darkwing's anarchic style ... and the squad eventually triumphs by following the book.
  • Joo Dee from Avatar: The Last Airbender plays this part when she makes the Gaang wait through weeks-long processes to post "Lost Bison" posters or talk to the Earth King about the invasion. She's really under Long Feng's order to prevent them from doing anything. Also, there was a bureaucrat literally obstructing the Gaang and others at the ferry in Full Moon Bay. The Earth Kingdom in general and Ba Sing Se in particular is depicted as symptomatically bureaucratic.
    • Er...its based on CHINA. As Cracked.com once said "you cannot crap in the woods without the government knowing about it" (may not be an exact quotation, it was similar to this though).
    • Also, the bureaucrat obstructing the Gaang at the ferry is not doing it just for the sake of obstructiveness, but because he is under orders to prevent war refugees from entering the Ba Sing Se region (pretty much the last region safe from the war, which is precisely why refugees are stampeding towards it) en masse due to the fact that it is already approaching the limit of how much excess population it can support.
  • Alien X obstructs itself. The most powerful being in the universe, capable of altering reality... and its two halves are still in a meeting deciding whether or not they should save the dinosaurs.
  • The first appearance of the Pixies on The Fairly OddParents had them taking over Fairy World. They immediately implemented a long paperwork system for granting wishes that it was nearly impossible to get any wish approved.
  • Disney's Recess has Menlo, who's en route to becoming one of these guys and has already, through unfailing adherence to the rules, attained a highly trusted position within the school. He's usually the one who plays this role toward the other kids, e.g., administering the quiz on lice. The gang in general reacts quite negatively toward his legalism, although in one episode they are shocked to discover that Menlo and T.J. used to be inseparable best friends, but grew apart, some time before the gang got started - and both still have fond feelings for each other, despite the rivalry. It gives a bit of humanity to the kid.
    • An example of how strict he is: Gus and Mikey were standing in line with their permission slips for an excursion, but when they finally got to the front of the line, Menlo pointed out it was a few seconds past the due time. He seemed to find the fact that there was a line irrelevant.
  • As the Chief Officer of Rules and Regulations, Shika of Maryoku Yummy lives to enforce the rules, and nothing makes him happier than filling out forms.
  • Dilbert's Bob Bastard, the test engineer who NEVER aproves anything, and enjoys destroying people's dreams and emotionally and financially abusing women.

Examples of life-and-death matters

Comic Books

  • In Archie Comics' Sonic The Hedghog, Hamlin becomes this once he's elected to the Council of Acorn, mostly out of spite toward the Freedom Fighters for having made him a member of the rarely-used backup unit. He uses his position to attempt to make it hard for the Freedom Fighters to act, and is the only one to vote to punish Sally for leading an urgent mission against orders not to (though, granted, he likely wouldn't have been the only one if Sally hadn't threatened to become an Obstructive Bureaucrat herself).


  • Alien. Ellen Ripley quotes "24 hours for decontamination" regulations rather than allow Kane to enter the Nostromo for treatment. Of course, she turns out to be right, but by making her appear unsympathetic the movie conceals her eventual role as the hero. A more straight-up application of the trope is the board of inquiry in Aliens. Again this is used to mislead the audience, as the only member who expresses sympathy towards Ripley is Carter Burke, hiding his role as the villain.
  • Dirty Harry had one per film. Not as evident in the first film, where he is mostly just chewed out for his methods, Lt. Briggs in Magnum Force is the Big Bad, Captain McKay in The Enforcer is portrayed as completely incompetent (leading to an ending where he pleads with the terrorists to release the mayor after Harry has dealt with them) and in later films, they want him to ouright retire.
  • In the first Die Hard movie, the LA police are shown to be mostly made up of this, with an operator who refuses to let John report an emergency because he's on an emergency channel without authorization, and a deputy police chief who refuses to deal with John because he doesn't have obvious proof he's a cop and authorized to be there. Then the bureaucrats of the police are upstaged by the bureaucrat of the FBI who start obstructing them (and who the Big Bad was counting on running things "by the book").

Live Action TV

  • On C.H.A.O.S Director Higgins is this to the ODS team and his goal is to have the ODS team disbanded. His obstruction can result in someone dying or a dangerous criminal or terrorist getting away. However, his actions are often justified by the fact that acting on unconfirmed intelligence from dubious sources can result in the deaths of innocents and a PR nightmare for the CIA. Once he approves a mission he will give it his full support and do everything he can to keep his agents safe.


  • In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novel Necropolis, an official tries to stop Soric and his fellow refugees from seeking shelter and medical attention when they are actually being shelled. When one of his guards shoots one of the refugees, they charge and kill them to get through.

"Do you understand what a State of Emergency is, old man?" said Bownome.
"Understand? I'm gakking living it!" Soric blurted.

    • In Sabbat Martyr, an official objects to Criid's opening an abandoned building to shelter children in the cold. She refuses to evict them.
    • In the same novel, the Ghosts were barred from using their flamers by the planetary government. This was partly because most of the city was built out of wood, but mostly because the use of flamers was reserved for their own elite forces.
    • It's The Guns of Tanith that takes this Up to Eleven as the book opens to a pair of Ghost sergeants trying to requisition the proper ammo, since the lagsun packs they were issued were the wrong size, but the munitorum adept's only response is "Size 5 is the standard pattern". The exchange ends with one of the Ghosts threatening to kill the adept if he says "standard pattern" one more time.
  • In Terry Pratchett's Night Watch, Vimes refused to hand over people to the Unmentionables without a receipt. And proof of ID from the man who signed it. He insists that it is regulations—though regulations that had not been enforced before due to watchmen being scared. This stops them for a while, as no member of the Unmentionables wants to have his name connected to what they do to people. And asking for proof of ID made sense since the Unmentionable who initially signed for the prisoners did so with the name "Henry the Hamster" and Vimes, quite reasonably, pointed out that he'd look a bit silly if he went back to his captain with that on a receipt.
    • In Men at Arms, Mayonnaise Quirke of the Day Watch has completely screwed things up, leading to a riot. When a Day Watch officer arrives at the Watch House for help, Carrot first points out they've been relieved of duty, and then asks him a series of questions. Based on the answers he announces that, according to the Laws and Ordances of Ankh-Morpork, the "Citizen's Militia" is now in control of everything. The Citizen's Militia consists of the Night Watch and whoever else they felt like recruiting.
  • The Small Back Room the novel (later film) by Nigel Balchin details the internal struggles of a team of World War II scientists/public servants who are the embodiment of this trope. The team spends its time working on an anti-tank weapon that is theoretically efficient but has little practical field value. The protagonist is a decent yet weak man who fails to take the tough steps needed to improve matters, while his Manipulative Bastard friend delights in deposing those whom he's deemed incompetent, but ends up putting an even more incompetent man in charge of the team.
  • Vice-Chancellor Nesselrode is portrayed as this in The Death of the Vazir Mukhtar; he seems more funny at first, but his decisions, based on the high political considerations of avoiding all and any possible turbulence, could easily be fatal for some of his subordinates ( and end up being fatal for the Russian mission in Persia).
  • Cornelius Fudge of Harry Potter proves to be this. He primarily acts as headpiece for the Ministry with recommendations from Malfoy and other respected individuals deciding his actions rather than his own opinions. However, unlike his Undersecretary who is decidedly evil, Fudge simply wants to stay in control, and he seems to know that any disturbance in the peace would see him quickly ousted. As such, he refused to review the case of Sirius Black or accept Voldemort's return in order to maintain the status quo.
  • In Star Trek: Gemworld, there's Tangre Bertoran, and indeed most of the Jeptah (as the government elite maintaining Gemworld's environment are called). In contrast to most of the “normal” folk encountered on Gemworld (who tend to be pleasant and welcoming enough), the Jeptah - and Bertoran in particular - resent the presence of anyone trying to actually help rather than blindly follow the rules, and complicate plans to save the planet considerably.
  • As with in the humorous section, the New Testament of the Bible frequently painted the Pharisees as antagonists in this vein. It seems that one of Jesus's main purposes in coming back, aside from His sacrifice, was to clarify some very literal and twisted interpretations of Old Testament commandments. The Pharisees tried several times to catch Him in a logical contradiction using Hebraic code.

Video Games

  • In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, one particularly vicious and procedure-oriented Imperial captain hears one of her subordinates protesting that one of the traitorous rebels being sent to the block for execution is not on the list of Stormcloak rebels sentenced to death. She promptly shouts him down, since the prisoner is in that cart, so that prisoner is going to the block, and nothing is stopping this execution save for the dragon-god showing up a few minutes later. Said prisoner is you, the player-character. It is entirely possible after you escape to join up with the Stormcloaks and proceed to utterly destroy the entire Imperial presence in Skyrim out of raw fury at your near-experience with a Viking crewcut....because one jerk didn't double-check the list.
  • In StarCraft, Aldaris sends a fleet to Char, the planet that Tassadar was stranded on. To arrest him for, in short; disobeying orders and not purifying the infected Terran planets, not returning to Auir to be punished, demoted, and maybe executed; attempting to help his race and home world by allying with the Nerazim; whom the Conclave had exiled for "heretical powers born of darkness", and not returning to Auir after his ship was destroyed and he was marooned. The entire Conclave likely fits this trope, although Aldaris is the only Judicator you meet. Also, the Confederacy when they arrested James Raynor for "destruction of Confederate property". The destroyed property? Infested Terran bases that were making more infested Terrans.

Real Life

  • Pink Elephants being no where near as charming in Real Life as in fiction, Theodore Dalrymple tried to wrestle with them because of it:

Indeed, I have known such patients dive through windows of the upper stories of my hospital in order, as they supposed, to escape the monsters, or enemies, who pursued or were attacking them. (Interestingly, it has proved difficult to persuade the hospital administration that such patients should be nursed on the ground floor as a precautionary measure, suggesting a subliminal death wish, though not on the part of the patients.)

  • Exploited. According to some schools of political theory the intention of the US Constitution was to make sure as many sections of the US Government were jammed up as possible as if they are not doing much they are at least to that extent doing little harm. Not precisely humorous(well depending on your sense of humor)but interesting.

Examples of the dark version

Anime and Manga

  • Captain William Sutherland, a member of the Earth Forces' General Staff in Mobile Suit Gundam SEED. During his initial appearances he interrogates the crew of the Archangel about the alleged improprieties in voyage, transfers the crewmembers he views as politically reliable to other assignments, than puts in motion a plan that will get not only the remaining Archangel crew, but also most of the Earth Forces' Eurasian allies killed off. He's later revealed to be The Dragon to Blue Cosmos leader Muruta Azrael, and in his own banal, pencil-pushing way, a major mover and shaker behind the plan to exterminate all of the Coordinators. A truly reprehensible, if dull personality.

Comic Books

  • If there is ever a need for an insufferable jackass with a load of red tape in the Marvel Universe, expect to see another appearance by Henry Peter Gyrich. He spent decades being a massive pain in the ass of superhero teams, particularly the Avengers, before Crisis Crossover events such as Civil War and Secret Invasion pushed him into Knight Templar territory.
    • He's even beyond that. His actions during Avengers: The Initiative (cloning a teenage soldier and using him to cover up a training death) clearly cross the Moral Event Horizon. He's the only comic book character where "basic human decency" is an Informed Attribute. Everyone goes out of their way to say he's not a villain, while Gyrich's actions would say otherwise.
      • In a related example, in the climactic issue of Rom: Spaceknight, he attempts to use the weapon that just defeated the Dire Wraiths to strip every super-being on Earth of their powers. No country on Marvel Earth has any law forbidding the possession of super-powers (though the US had tried to pass similar legislations - and failed), and Gyrich has no judicial authority at all.
      • Hilariously enough, at one point, he was almost redeemed. During the Geoff Johns run around '03, Gyrich even managed to have a somewhat friendly relationship with Falcon and the two of them working together discovered that the US Secretary of Defense was the Red Skull in disguise, which was instrumental in trying to fight the Skull's plan to cover the US in a flesh-eating virus and use the attack to start WWIII by blaming Wakanda for it. Aaaaaand then Gyrich promptly dropped off the Moral Event Horizon himself only about three years later with his aforementioned atrocities in the Initiative.


  • A major theme in Brazil.
  • Implied and subverted by Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. He was said to have been an Internal Affairs agent investigating Lieutenant Gordon's men on corruption charges for political points before he became the District Attorney for Gotham City. However, his suspicions are later found to be true when two men he investigated betrayed him and indirectly led him to becoming Two-Face.
    • He blames Gordon for what happened to him and for the death of Rachel Dawes.
  • Kent Mansley in The Iron Giant starts out as a humorous Obstructive Bureaucrat, but as his obsession with finding the giant grows, he starts to venture into Well-Intentioned Extremist territory, threatening to separate Hogarth from his mother and even suggesting nuking the town. When his recklessness leads to a nuclear missile actually being launched toward the town, his Patriotic Fervor is quickly replaced with outright cowardice: "Screw our country! I wanna live!"
  • Director Theodore Galloway, the President's Aide sent to oversee NEST in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen actively believes that the Autobots are to blame for the Decepticons attacking Earth, and attempts to force the Autobots to leave. When the Decepticons finally invade in force, instead of mobilizing NEST, the aide instead forces NEST to stand down and return to base, citing that standard operating procedure would be to try and negotiate a peaceful resolution with the enemy. Fortunately, they manage to get rid of him by shoving him out of a plane and dumping him in the middle of the Egyptian desert.
    • Unfortunately they gave him a parachute first.
      • An often overlooked small detail: American soldiers just dumped the President's National Security Advisor in the middle of the desert. Yes, I'm sure the fact that the guy was a douche perfectly justifies leaving him in a position to be easily captured by god knows who and thus endanger the entire country. They couldn't just bind and gag him, if they had to do something that insubordinate?
        • He. Called Prime... SCRAP METAL!!!!!!!!!!!!
        • More seriously, he is acting outside of his authority. The National Security Advisor is not normally in the direct line of command (he can of course be temporarily placed there by Presidential order, but the same would be true for a three-legged dog), and a decision of this magnitude would be above his pay grade anyway as only the President himself gets to make this kind of call, and nobody watching the movie heard the President say anything or even saw the NSA report to him. Furthermore, he's making manifestly the wrong decision; the Earth is within an hour of being destroyed by an enemy that has already made it plain it is absolutely uninterested in negotiating, and if the soldiers follow his plan then the entire human race will be extinct before sunrise tomorrow.
  • Akira Kurosawa's film Ikiru is all about this trope. In it, a man who has been a city bureaucrat of the mindless drone variety discovers that he is dying of stomach cancer. Confronted with this, and the realization that his son is only concerned about his inheritance, he first tries hedonism to get some meaning out of life. When that fails, he decides to take up the concern of a group of locals- cleaning a polluted pond and creating a park, a process that had been stalled into oblivion by the city bureaucracy giving citizens the workaround. Through sheer determination and blatant disregard for the traditional means of operation of the Japanese bureaucracy, he gets the park built before he dies. At his funeral, his fellow Obstructive Bureaucrats get drunk and promise to take up his example and no longer ignore the cause of their citizens...and the final scene is of everyone doing just that. Well, almost everyone...


  • Franz Kafka practically invented this trope, most notably appearing in his novels The Trial and The Castle. Kafka manages to incorporate (obstructive bureaucratic) evil into the very fabric of reality.
  • The Discworld universe features the Auditors, mysterious, cosmic beings who balance the books of reality. They would prefer an existence devoid of life, which makes things untidy, and intelligent thought, which is even less tidy and predictable. They have repeatedly attempted to eliminate the Discworld in an attempt to tidy up their books.
    • If they even think the world "I" or "me" or any other personal pronoun too many times they Vanish In A Puff of Smoke. They don't have names or even designations. They don't have faces. They never have any original thoughts. They have no feelings. Period. Abstract concepts cause them difficulties as the Auditors want to quantify everything that exists, but cannot isolate these concepts; at one point, they even disassembled a portrait to its component atoms in a vain attempt to locate the beauty.
      • In Thief of Time they were introduced to mortal delights. Unlike the description in the page header where this could free them of their evil, this doesn't. The shock of experiencing chocolate was enough to make them vanish. Their attempts to catalog everything their body experienced made them think so hard they forgot to exist.
    • The Death of the Discworld is, ironically, a recurring opponent of theirs; his job may be to take it away, but that doesn't stop Death from appreciating life.
    • One might point out cynically that by defeating the Auditors, Death is protecting his own job, since if there's no life anymore he's literally redundant. In fact the real reason is probably because the Auditors are trying to disrupt the natural order of things, of which Death is a part.
      • But while he is Bill Door he saves a little girl—even though it's usually his job to take people's lives away. The implication is that while he would prefer to be saving people, he's attached to his job to make sure that no one worse does it.
      • Death has been shown as being the only remaining thing at the end of the universe, and then waiting for another one to inevitably form. His job is safe.
        • By the end of Reaper Man, he makes it clear that he cares, first by asking the Ultimate Death, "What can the harvest hope for if not the care of the Reaper Man?", and, later, having installed fields of corn in his deathly estate, proceeds to carefully notice that they are not all alike, but are individuals each worth caring for. Of course, his waiting for a new universe occurs in an earlier book (he started out as an Omnicidal Maniac) and this was his Character Development book.
    • In Reaper Man, Miss Flitworth helps Death against them because he explains they are like revenuers—which everyone knows are worse than death. (You only have to die once.)
  • Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a Smug Snake who, initially appointed as Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, gradually works her way to a position of supreme power at Hogwarts ... and eventually, assumes a great deal of control over the wizard government. Percy Weasley also became one of these, though he managed to redeem himself at the end.
  • Warhammer 40,000 Imperial bureaucrats will tell you you're dead to your face if they have the paperwork, and there are planets of them, running a million-world Imperium as best they can. However, the bureaucrats rarely mess up on large scale due to rather brutal checks and balances: the higher authorities don't feel obligated to accept all and any excuses, and the real direct power is mostly in the hands of Inquisition and feudal hierarchy, who got enough of overrides, in that most of the time they can ensure things which must be done will be done… or will be done a little later by other people, feeling very motivated after being told what happened to their predecessors.
    • In the Ciaphas Cain novel The Caves of Ice, there are two particular Obstructive Bureaucrats, the local heads of the Administratum and Adeptus Mechanicus. Their constant arguing over protocols and procedure affects not only the normal operation of the promethium-mining facility there, but also the efforts of the Valhallan 597th as it works to prepare defenses against an oncoming Ork onslaught. Fortunately, Cain is able to find some lower-level officials in both ranks who not only are on amicable working terms with one another (and the mining population), but also happen to be able to actually get things done despite their superiors' constant bickering. The "dark" element of this trope comes into play when it is learned that the mine is built atop a Necron tomb; as later evidence proves, the site was intentionally chosen by the AdMech to give them easy access to the facility away from prying eyes should a way be found to investigate the tomb and recover its ancient technology.
      • Fortunately, Cain and his comrades are able to deal with the "obstructive" part of the problem by imposing martial law and threatening to shoot anyone who gets in their way.
      • The Valhallan 597th also owns some thanks to the Administratum, which still thinks they're two regiments, as such they are given twice as much supplies and recruits than most (also why the men/women ratio is always 50/50)
      • Subverted by the Administratum bureaucrat Scrivener Quintus from Death or Glory, who single-handedly organizes logistics for Cain's ragtag army with impeccable skill for several months. He's also quite easy to get along with and even has something of a sense of humour.
      • Also subverted by Bursar Brasker in Cain's Last Stand who is using Obfuscating Stupidity to conform to peoples' expectations of a fussy bureaucrat and is actually quite an amiable (and helpful) fellow once Cain finds out.
      • It wasn't so much Obfuscating Stupidity as it was Cain never seeing his skills as necessary before, and Brasker never really having anything important to do before. The book is written from Cain's perspective, who would have had little interest in how competent Brasker was at his job until the planet was being invaded and he had to ask for his help.
    • There's also a subversion in the Gaunt's Ghosts novel Necropolis. When the government begins bickering over whether they should call the Imperial Guard to help, the ranking Administratum official goes over their heads and contacts the Imperium anyways. He justifies this by saying that the planet is crucial for its production of military equipment, so it is therefore the Imperium's problem, not a local one.
    • It should be also noted that the Administratum, is only Obstructive Bureaucrat because it covers such a large Empire, this is why fluff always shows that the lower-levels are so good at their jobs.
    • The 5th ed. Imperial Guard codex has a mention of a unit that died to a man in battle. The paperwork wasn't completed properly, and their leader was selected to lead a later attack. When they didn't show up, the entire unit was posthumously sentenced to death for desertion.
    • There's an example in one of the Eisenhorn books when Aemos tells someone that if all the data generated by the entire Imperium in a single second was put through all of Earth's cogitators, they would explode.
  • In his preface to the The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis references the "Eichmann" bureaucrat type as a model for how he envisioned demons.
  • In Catch-22 Doc Daneeka is listed as a crew member of a plane so he can get flight pay, although he hates flying. He's not actually aboard the plane when it crashes. Still, since he is listed as being on it, he is marked down as dead. Even while he is standing right in front of people who have known him for months, they talk about what a shame it is he died in the crash. This does not turn out well for him.
  • Ark Sool in Artemis Fowl.
  • The anthropomorphic fox-like dan'lai in George R. R. Martin's short story "The Stone City". They are constantly telling protagonist Holt that they will find him a berth on a ship and allow him to leave the planet "next week" (they seem to take sadistic pleasure in denying him). Finally he meets one who tells him he can get a berth on the ship he arrived at Grayrest on immediately...provided he can get a signature from his missing and presumed dead captain. This infuriates Holt so much that he strangles the dan'lai to death in a fit of rage and has to go into hiding in the titular Stone City...
  • Borsk Fey'lya, to an astonishing degree. He was introduced in The Thrawn Trilogy as a Bothan council member of the New Republic, proudly flaunting his species' hat of backbiting political savvy (the other hats being spying, hacking, and great personal courage). He literally cannot imagine his fellow Council members as not out to get him just as much as he is out to get them; everyone who opposes him is his enemy. He will try and bar them at any given opportunity. And he's on the New Republic's side, shows no signs of going over to the enemy, and does not actually engineer events so much as take advantage of them, so he is never the outright enemy, to several characters' frustration, as that would've given them the ability to just shoot him. And unfortunately for everyone, he's very good at recovering from even the most embarrassing political setbacks.
    • In the New Jedi Order he does, after Coruscant's fall, surrender to the highest-ranked nearby Vong, and then trigger a massive suicide bomb. Books that don't have him as a petty semi-villain portray him as brave in his way, but unable to let go of his paranoia and vindictiveness.
    • Booster Terrick gets a Crowning Moment of Awesome when Fey'lya, up to his usual Rules Lawyering, tries to take control of Booster's Star Destroyer and pull off an elegant piece of backstabbing that will end up killing Corran Horn. Fey'lya unfortunately doesn't take two things into consideration; although Booster dislikes Horn, Corran is engaged to his daughter and more importantly Booster, being a 'former' smuggler, doesn't give a damn about any rules or laws protect Borsk. What follows is a brutal beatdown of Fey'lya by Terrick that ends with a broken nose and a lot of blood.
      • Whats even funnier is that Fey'lya knows that if he ever does try and get Terrik arrested he'll become a laughingstock among Bothans due to the fact that he, a fairly young Bothan, got his ass handed to him by a middle-aged human despite the fact Bothans are supposedly much physically stronger than humans.
    • Another example, during the Black Fleet Crisis, rejected Tenn Graneet's application to join the Republic military because he came from an Imperial planet. The main thing this earned him was a chewing out from Admiral Ackbar.
  • In one of the James Bond books the author points out that all well-run organizations have at least one Obstructive Bureaucrat for the other workers to hate. He should have a job which isn't vital but affects everyone's day to day life. Something like being in charge of the office supplies. This is to unite them in at least one thing, that is they all agree this guy is a Jerkass. M makes sure to have one.
  • In The Phantom Tollbooth one of the demons lurking in the Mountains of Ignorance is the Senses Taker. He stalls the heroes with reams of pointless paperwork, which he then uses to distract them by creating the ultimate sensory experience for each one. The Taker is defeated when Milo accidentally breaks open a package of laughter, since the only sense he can't take is humor.
  • Mr. Chesney in The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones is somewhere inbetween humourous and dark. Making an entire world act like a bad fantasy novel might seem like a funny concept, until you take into account the people who are tortured, raped or killed because of it.
  • The Forgotten Realms novel Azure Bonds shows how Lhaeo does his job, that is, prevents adventurers from bothering Elminster. How the scribe is supposed to intimidate and turn away people who used to take out dragons and worse? Riiight...

Akabar: Does anyone ever make it past this blizzard of parchment?
Lhaeo: Well. There was a delegation from the Forest of Anauroch.
Akabar: Anauroch is a desert, not a forest.
Lhaeo: Well, now it is, yes.

    • Technically, Lhaeo is exaggerating for comedic effect — Anauroch was a desert before the ancient empire of Netheril fell, and that was centuries before Elminster was born. Also, having such practice probably helped in more than one way after he got crowned. Tethyr got an amazingly devious King.
  • The Senators in the Codex Alera are bad about this. They tend to focus on irrelevant personal feuds and power plays in the face of such things as an invasion of 60,000 Big Badass Wolfmen or a Horde of Alien Locusts, and one of them, Arnos, turns out to be an incompetent Complete Monster General Ripper when he's actually put in charge of something. Cheers could be heard from the readers when High Lord Placidus bodily threw Senator Valerius out of a command meeting in the last book.[1]
  • The bureaucrats of the Solarian League in the Honor Harrington books. Unfortunately, they are the ones with the real decision-making power.
  • Sisterhood series by Fern Michaels: A major plotline that develops is how Martine Connor becomes the first female President of the United States, and she is trying to secure pardons to the Vigilantes. It proves to be more difficult than it appears. Here's why: Deadly Deals reveals her chief of staff, Aaron Lowry, who is The Napoleon, had been obstructing the presidential pardons, supposedly because it would be political suicide for the president to even try it. She ends up firing him as well as charging him in Game Over, because he turns out to be in bed with Baron Bell, a lawyer and Villain with Good Publicity who had been selling babies! Game Over also has the president obstructed by her advisors, who are more interested in their own agendas than in being loyal to her. At the urging of Henry "Hank" Jellicoe, head of Global Securities, she ends up throwing out many more people, and he supposedly pulls strings to replace them with people 100% loyal to her. She also has the pardons signed, and she paves the way to make it easy for the Vigilantes to sneak in and snatch the pardons! It's hard to be president!

Live-Action TV

  • Agent Mahone from Prison Break.
  • Too many in 24 to list.
  • The true villain of the Doctor Who episode "Ghost Light" is a godlike bureaucrat known only as Light: having made a comprehensive survey of life on Earth many millions of years ago, he retires to stasis - only to awake in the nineteenth century and discover that evolution has made all his work invalid. His proposed solution is to sterilise the planet of all organic life and prevent any further amendments to his catalogue.
    • Mr. Popplewick in "Trial of a Time Lord" is a Victorian clerk who pops up numerous times to obfuscate, torment and hold up the Doctor whilst he's trying to locate the Valeyard in the Matrix. it's revealed that Popplewick is a disguise used by the Valeyard.
  • Sanford Harris from Fringe, although his motivations are partly due to a personal vendetta against Olivia Dunham.
  • Supreme Commander Birdie and, according to Word of God, the rest of the governing body of SPD from Power Rangers. They won't help you if you don't have all your "t"s crossed and "i"s dotted, even if you have concrete proof that evil aliens have landed on your lawn. It's not an uncommon Fanon interpretation to portray them as actively hindering the protagonists.
  • Many politicians and high-ranking police officers in The Wire. Stan Valchek and Ervin Burrell are probably the most notable.
    • Special mention goes to people in charge of homicide, all the way to the top, being more obsessed with their crime stats than with actually finding the guilty parties and jaling them, going so far as to being willing to jail someone innocent of the crime on dodgy evidence or refusing to go looking for bodies for fear it will worsen their statistics.

Tabletop Games

  • In the Ravnica: City of Guilds set of Magic: The Gathering, the Azorius Senate can be seen as an entire guild of such characters. Just look at the cards Droning Bureaucrats and Minister of Impediments. Naturally, the guild's cards lend themselves well to stalling and control strategies. The Guild Charter of Ravnica explicitly states that the purpose of the Azorius Senate is to make the most complex and confusing laws possible.

"Where much work is done to make sure nothing is accomplished." - flavor text for Prahv, headquarters for the Azorius.
"...and you must also apply for an application license, file documents 136(iv) and 22-C and -D in triplicate, pay all requisite fees, request a ..." - flavor text for Droning Bureaucrats

  • In 'Ravnica' fluff, Orzhov are shown to be more or less the same - a massive obfusticating bureaucracy, but this being black, partially staffed by the undead - adding a whole new meaning to the idiom ' corporate zombie '.
  • This is pretty much the modus operandi for a good portion of White's cards. Being the color of light and law, (though not necessarily good,) White has no trouble using the Long Arm of The Law to strangle you to death. Of course, since the military falls under the technical definition of "law," they're just as likely to strangle you the old-fashioned way as well.
  • And the Aysen Bureaucrats from the Homelands set.
  • Parodied with Bureaucracy, an Unglued card where the bureaucratese is not only in the flavor text but in the entire text of what the card does.


  • In The Consul, the only visible employee of a foreign consulate in a European Police State is a secretary who gives people trying to obtain exit visas an endless series of forms for them to fill out and sign, if the documents she asks them to provide are all in order. Many are made to wait for months on end. The secretary views them as numbers rather than as people with names, because "otherwise, how can one do any work?"


  • Holepunch, a Targetmaster from Transformers, is an actively malicious Obstructive Bureaucrat. In fact, making people wait in lines and having them come back later and such is basically all the fun he ever has. The Mirror Universe version of him inverts this as a peppy motivational speaker skilled at keeping morale high.

Video Games

  • In Deus Ex, you start out under the employ of a Joseph Manderley, a respected counter-terrorism official best known for eradicating a sect of Knights Templar. The best you ever see him do is push papers until he decides to shoot you in the back rather than the face when you escape UNATCO.
  • In Guild Wars: Factions, we have Cantha's Celestial Ministry. The cities and slums around the Kaineng Center are struggling with oppressive Guilds, pirates, and the Infected. There are dozens of homeless Canthan peasants, and the Celestial Ministry couldn't care less about their well being. In one mission, you are tasked with delivering handmirrors to the homeless; with each delivery, you are told, in no uncertain terms, that the Ministry should be sending them food and medicine, instead of increasingly pretty and useless trinkets like the mirrors (or decorative lawn gnomes). Another mission has you running all over the city trying to find the bureaucrat with the authority to hand out the new medical supplies; the highlight of that mission is when a guy tells you to talk to his superior, who is five feet away from him. Thankfully, the Emperor himself is far more in touch with what the people need.
  • Captain Perry in Heavy Rain.

Web Comics

  • Jack Noir of Homestuck was originally this, stating that he'd rather gut someone than do paperwork for them that he doesn't feel like. This is dropped when he later goes on to be the Big Bad of the series.

Web Original

  • From the Whateley Universe, Amelia Hartford, assistant to the headmistress at Whateley Academy, is the superpowered version of this. She uses her power over computers as well as her malicious nature to be the Obstructive Bureaucrat of your nightmares, except for the chosen few who get special privileges from her.
  • BOFH regularly meets these, so there are plans for such a case.

Risk 1: A lifetime of filling out meaningless paperwork to appease some glory-hogging control freak. Contingency Plan:

Real Life

  • A number of Nazis at the Nuremberg trials post-World War Two defended themselves against charges of war crimes with the excuse that they were "Just Following Orders." The Nuremberg Defense has been ruled invalid in situations involving genocide or crimes against humanity, though it is still a completely valid legal defense in many military situations: the prosecution has to prove that it was unreasonable not to know the order was illegal. Opening a gate to let a convoy through: reasonable. Slaughtering twelve million people: unreasonable.
    • Early on in his career, Hitler would get around both the law and this trope by making intentionally vague orders to be interpreted in the harshest way possible, mostly as a way of downplaying his involvement in some of the Nazis' more violent doings. You can bet that if he wanted some Social Democrat or Communist "taken care of" he meant that he wanted that person to get the crap beaten out of them, or worse.
      • In general, though, one of the things leading to the Nazi regime's downfall is how Hitler, fearful of usurpation, tended to set his various departments against each other, in the end, causing a ton of time, manpower, and resources that could have otherwise gone to fighting external enemies to instead be used to obstruct any other department from looking better than one's own.
    • Otto Skorzeny did, however, successfully acquit himself of war crimes charges regarding sabotage, dressing in enemy uniforms, etc., by calling various members of Allied special operations forces as witnesses and asking them to talk about instances where they'd done the same things to the Germans. He then told the tribunal 'Either charge them, or drop the charges against me'. They chose the latter.
  • Ronald Reagan once claimed, "There seems to be an increasing awareness of something we Americans have known for some time: that the ten most dangerous words in the English language are, 'hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"
    • Politicians and bureaucrats don't always see eye-to-eye, as Yes Minister can demonstrate.
  • Before he became the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin was General Secretary of the Communist Party, which gave him powers of patronage, the resources he needed to build up a power base in the party, and control of the civil service and Politburo. Effectively, he was Russia's chief bureaucrat, and he was good at it, by all accounts. Other members of the party gave him names like "Comrade Card Index" and "the Grey Blur", but he certainly showed that a list of names and a telephone are as useful as a gun when it comes to taking over a country. That said, Tsarist Russia had relied on the bureaucracy (as well as the church and army) as a major part of controlling the country.
    • This directly led to General Secretary of the Communist Party becoming the de facto highest office in the USSR; Stalin managed to turn a bureaucratic office into the imperial seat. It wasn't until Mikhail Gorbachev that the USSR underwent a political shakeup in the early '90s and the Executive President became the Soviet Union's highest office.
  • There is a reason why almost all procedural laws relating to the filling out and filing of court documents say "A document is not invalid simply because it doesn't follow a form."
    • Of course, some don't help by immediately specifying the forms to horrifying detail (Margins, spacing, font, etc.)
  • A positive example was with Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey of the US FDA. In the early sixties, she was driving a major drug company nuts demanding more extensive scientific testing documentation about a profitable new drug called thalidomide. Despite the corporate pressure, Dr. Kelsey refused to give in and approve the drug for market because her personal alarm bells were going off at the info about the drug. Eventually, the drug's infamous birth defects were revealed to the world and Dr. Kelsey was hailed as a hero for largely sparing the USA the same tragedy.
    • Of course, the current FDA's regulations have looped back around to a straight example. Ever wonder why so many drugs list cold and flu-like symptoms or, even more alarmingly, cancer as possible side effects? Because one or more people in the testing group caught a cold or just happened to be diagnosed with cancer while they were taking the drug. (Something that is especially likely when your study group is full of older people.) Since FDA regulations are extremely strict about not being able to count these as "outliers", they instead have to be listed as possible side effects... and possibly scare people off from taking the drug.
  • Indian Agents in The Wild West were notorious for this. They would steal the subsidies meant to keep the reservations from being more miserable than was perceived as necessary. Then they would sell guns to the Indians. They thus provided both the provocation and the means at the same time. Of course the ones who suffered from this were indians and soldiers, and not Obstructive Bureaucrats. This was alluded to in John Wayne 's cavalry trilogy.
  1. (He'd been ranting about how Bernard was breaking the law by building the fortifications that were the last defense of the human race, for the curious.)