To begin with, the bureaucratic process was extremely time-consuming, and when I inquired about the status of my documents, they gave me the runaround. After incessantly contacting them regarding my documents, I eventually discovered the reason for the delay: they had misplaced my documents. When I tried to ascertain the whereabouts of my documents, they provided me with conflicting information.

Could you please suggest an idiom that describes this bureaucratic nightmare, the inefficiency involved?

Could you also say that my documents were lost in the workings of a dysfunctional bureaucracy?

  • 1
    This is related.
    – fev
    Commented Apr 27 at 18:22
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    I pray for one thing alone, that whatever you find, you don't add to the universal horror of bureaucracy, which says it all. Not bureaucratic nightmare or dysfunctional bureaucracy. Maybe anti-system, or tripping over their own diktats. Commented Apr 28 at 1:31
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    To give (someone) the runaround is an idiom. You answered your own question. TY/YW. IDGI… Commented Apr 28 at 8:33
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    Here's a visual idiom outside the Municipal Services Building in Philadelphia. associationforpublicart.org/artwork/government-of-the-people
    – TimR
    Commented Apr 29 at 11:35
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    the ABCD model of bureaucracy? Avoid, Bypass, Confuse and Delay! Commented May 3 at 5:03

13 Answers 13


This may be slightly stronger than what you're looking for, but consider Kafkaesque:

Kafkaesque (adj). Having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Kafkaesque)

The Merriam-Webster page above uses the example "Kafkaesque bureaucratic delays"; my hard-copy Random House dictionary uses the example "Kafkaesque bureaucracies," as does dictionary.com. In fact (until researching this question), I think I've only ever heard the word Kafkaeseque used to describe a bureaucracy.

This medium.com page uses this description:

...a feeling we have all experienced when struggling against a bureaucratic system where we have no empowerment, filling out a poorly designed government form, or that hopeless situation where we’re expected to do something, but lack the information, authority, or autonomy to act. The term ‘Kafkaesque’ refers to that nauseous and belittling sinking feeling that leaves us diminished, lost and hopeless when dealing with an unseen malevolent bureaucracy.

The word—very much like Orwellian for George Orwell—comes from characteristic situations in the literary works of the author Franz Kafka.

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    Also see Kafka's The Trial, from wiki: "...it tells the story of Josef K., a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime revealed neither to him nor to the reader." I don't know if the term Kafkaesque comes from a particular novel/short story of his (I'm pretty sure it's just a word that describes most of his work/style), but in my mind, The Trial is the best candidate for a singular origin of the term.
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Apr 30 at 16:51


By the second definition - bureaucracies are so moribund that they are their own byword for inefficiency.



My favorite word! It means bureaucracy (or any process) that is extremely complicated, impossible to understand and slow as molasses.


There's no idiom specific to a bureaucracy, but I've heard some similes, e.g.

like punching a giant marshmallow.

What came immediately to mind, though, and is an inspired piece of writing by Dickens, is the Circumlocution Office, which describes the government's function of serving itself, the purpose of which is to make getting anything done as difficult as possible.

Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving — HOW NOT TO DO IT.

The runnaround was their entire purpose.

It was as if I had entered the Circumlocution Office.

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    This answer reminded me of the "Department of Administrative Affairs" from the UK TV series Yes Minister. That department believed that bureaucracy does not need a purpose, simply that bureaucracy is necessary.
    – AdrianHHH
    Commented Apr 28 at 14:32
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    I'm not sure this answers the question, but it's far and away my favorite answer.
    – Raydot
    Commented Apr 30 at 16:36

To describe the ultimate cause, you could say your documents fell through the cracks, indicating that they were misplaced or mishandled among a large quantity of similar items, and that the mistake was never noticed or corrected. It calls to mind a large or complex process where items may get lost in transition from one part of the process to another. The phrase connotes a type of organizational inefficiency where not all items are handled well. The phrase would apply well to a bureaucracy, implying the large amount of regular processing being done, the fact that this particular item was not processed well, and that it got lost "between" people or departments.

To describe the aspect of the scenario where you got conflicting information from different people, you could say the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. This connotes that different members of the same organization are working at cross-purposes. It is another type of organizational inefficiency described by conflicting actions - they ought to know what the other is doing, but seemingly don't.


It can be called

the fact of not being skilled or effective

  • He was forced from office after a year for ineptitude and corruption.
  • You couldn't fail to be angry at the sheer waste and gross ineptitude.
  • The problems were public indifference, bureaucratic ineptitude, and corporate incompetence.

From Cambridge Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster has



A slightly tongue-in-cheek metaphor here would be to say that your documents vanished into the bureaucratic ether.

The concept of “the ether” has several different meanings - both the highest part of the sky, but also an omnipresent field where light would propagate but has since been proved not to exist. The expression thus gives the impression both that your documents are somewhere in the bureaucratic sky, but also lost in a place that doesn’t exist.


A phrase for bureaucratic people is

paper pushers

It has negative conntations, but may include people who work in a bureaucratic environment but resent it themselves.



The word shambolic is useful in this situation. It is typically described as "chiefly British" and "informal", however I hear it frequently in Canadian discussions in the international relations field.

It means "confused and badly organized" (Cambridge Dictionary)

Below is a quote from Hansard. In the discussion, Anne McIntosh (MP for Vale of York) uses the term several times.

The most shambolic of licence procedures was then adopted.The National Lottery Commission announced that neither the new applicants, The People's Lottery, nor Camelot, the then licence holder, would be awarded the next licence. Only the People's Lottery was allowed to proceed, and it had one month in which to improve its bid. Camelot then took the commission to the High Court, and won its case. It was not until 19 December 2000 that Camelot was eventually awarded the licence.


You could use "shambles".

(OLD) shambles noun /ˈʃæmblz/ [singular] (informal)

​a situation in which there is a great lack of order or understanding
synonym mess

  • The press conference was a complete shambles.
  • What a shambles!
  • He’s made an absolute shambles of his career.
  • in a shambles: The government is in a shambles over Europe.

Here is a word which is not informal.

(OLD) disarray noun /ˌdɪsəˈreɪ/ [uncountable]

​a lack of order or organization in a situation or a place

  • in/into disarray: The peace talks broke up in disarray.
  • Our plans were thrown into disarray by her arrival.
  • We’re decorating, so everything’s in complete disarray at home.

Red tape is best. It's a negative. (See Gio answer.) I also like, lost in the Paper Shuffling. Though its not even metaphor here. Jungle of Laws, opposite of law of the jungle. I found iron cage and straight jacket (of bureaucracy) but those didn't catch on. When you're writing, if you mention law of the jungle earlier on, when you drop jungle of laws it'll hit harder, and no want for explanation.


I have personally used the following or some variant:

chasing our tails

caught in the matrix

Keystone Cops

bridge to nowhere


Also, here are some words I've personally used to capture the experience of what you describe -- not idioms, though.




A good phrase for this might be a white elephant. This describes something (e.g. project, system, or item) that is a drain on resources but does not add much value.

In the context of an inefficient bureaucracy, this highlights how it is cumbersome and consumes more than it contributes/

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    A white elephant is usually a gift, often designed to hurt the recipient by requiring expensive care to maintain-- like the literal white elephants given by the rajas of India to nobles they didn't like. I don't think this one fits
    – No Name
    Commented Apr 28 at 19:11

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