Remember, you're up against centuries of practice on their part. Medieval nobility made the fatal mistake of handing administration over to early civil servants. It must have seemed like a no-brainer at the time: they do all the boring auditing while you get on with the fun stuff like robber-baroning, hunting and sucking up to the monarch. But it quickly led to the situation we have today where you phone up an official with a legitimate complaint, them being a public servant and you being the public, yet you come away with the distinct impression that you have somehow offended them and feeling extremely lucky that they have agreed to possibly "look into it".
Years ago, on the Kenny Everett TV show we see Kenny at home. His doorbell rings; he goes to the door, opens it and outside is Billy Connolly who says to Kenny, "Yes?". Connolly takes the offensive at being bothered, saying, "You opened the door," then threatens to call the constable. Kenny closes the door but can't resist opening it again. Connolly is still there and now exasperatedly says, "YES?". This is exactly what it's like dealing with officials when you have a legitimate problem.
I was a civil servant for many years before becoming a whistle-blower against the service, so while I don't necessarily have all the answers, I think I can identify a few tricks of the trade that you can be forewarned about.
NEVER EVER FORGET THAT IT'S ALL A GAME TO THEM
Civil servants for the most part, and particularly in recent years in Whitehall departments, are trained to never do or say anything that might lead to work, changes in the law, or helping the public. The game is to come away from any meeting or phone call having said nothing of any substance and promised little by way of actual follow-up work. Behind closed doors, they actually boast about achieving these aims, such as they are.
There is no clear solution to this other than to be constantly aware that they are playing a game. Therefore, try to make everything you say in a phone call or a meeting with them propositional, not just part of a narrative. Which is of course much easier said than done but below are some hopefully helpful clues.
LISTENING TO YOUR PROBLEM
You get through by phone to the right person (which itself is an art form, of course), this could be say the official who is in charge of the piece of law that you have an issue with. Bear in mind that they will already know about your complaint and will have already decided on the outcome. But very often, the first thing they will ask you to do is explain your problem in detail and how it is an issue for you.
This of course seems a very fair and reasonable line to take. And it would be if, as said, they hadn't already decided on the outcome of your complaint. In fact, this tactic is designed to both take the wind out of your complaint and to be able to note that they are "listening". As you talk for 5, 10, 15 minutes and all your points are being noted and "Hmmmm"ed and "I see"ed at, you start to feel confident: perhaps they weren't aware of this problem before and they're actually going to do something about it.
Sorry, but this technique is in the same department as the word "consider", which civil servants love to use in their drafts for Ministers' replies to MPs. "I will consider carefully all your points" writes the Minister, but of course "consider" doesn't promise any action at all.
In short, they are notlistening to your problem; they're managing it. And one way they manage it will be to tell their line manager that you spoke for a full fifteen minutes without interruption - eh? What a nutter. Civil servants have decided that this behaviour is on a par with people who write letters to them in red ink with lots of underlines, bolds and triple exclamation marks and therefore are only too happy to encourage you to take it up.
The Reverse Everett
When they ask you what your problem is, you say: "What do you think it is?" This is risky, however, since they will probably counter with The Reverse Connolly and say, "You tell me." Which in the circumstances is unfortunately not that unreasonable.
Punctuated Requests for Affirmation
You pause after every key point you make and say, "So, what do you think of that?" This prevents them from labelling you as a nutter who never stops for breath. It also requires them to clearly demonstrate their unwillingness to actually do anything about your complaint. Because they can only really reply, "I'm not in a position to say . . . " or "I'll certainly consider it . . . " or "Please carry on; I need to hear your whole argument . . . " This reminds me to advise that you should always record such phone calls - because this kind of avoidance of action, minimal though it is, will probably be the only evidence you ever get.
Summing up request
When you've finished, ask them politely to sum up what you've just said. They will do everything they can to avoid this because while they're only repeating what you've said, on tape or in notes it could look like they are actually agreeing with you. They may say they'll write to you after they've consulted other colleagues in the department, and they'll set out your issue then. But it's worth persisting with this one, politely pointing out that this is a serious matter which they've agreed to consider; therefore, it's important that you know they understand exactly what you're putting to them.
DON'T EVER SWEAR, RAISE YOUR VOICE OR CRITICISE
Just as officials are very good at establishing who's going to run an inquiry and quickly putting in place terms of engagement that very much suit them and not you, they do the same thing in miniature, in say a telephone conversation. They won't tell you the rules beforehand, of course, but if you break one of them it allows them to dismiss everything you say.
So, for example, if you make the mistake of saying, "For f*ck's sake!", even if it's the most appropriate response to them claiming that they don't know the first thing about the job they get paid £80K a year to do, you are still, er, fudged. Because not swearing is an internal rule in Whitehall departments and anyone who breaks it can be dismissed as a dangerous lunatic. Even if they're not a Whitehall civil servant. Even if they're a Minister.
Similarly, don't raise your voice, even if to do so would be the most human response to another duplicitous inanity they send your way, e.g. you say: "WHAT KIND OF PERSON AREYOU?"
Watch out, too, for accusations that you are "criticising". For example, I was once talking to a civil servant, giving them information - on record, verified, factual information - that indicated that one of the "independent" experts they'd appointed was probably in the pay of the very industry that he was supposed to be investigating. Instead of expressing alarm and promising to look into the evidence, they accused me of "criticising" their expert and I could hear the scratching of a red pen making an entry in that nutter register.
Politely, stick to the facts and evidence. Specifically say that you are not criticising (their expert); you are helping them to make sure that this important investigation into public safety clearly needs to be independent. They won't act on this, of course, but at least they can't put another tick against your name in the register.
THE TELLING FLASH OF IRRITATION/ANGER/IGNORANCE
Civil servants are well trained in never answering your questions and steering you towards premature balding by violent follicular self-assault, but there will usually be at least one moment when their guard slips, unconsciously. This is similar to when marriage experts talk about the flash or snarl of contempt that can appear in one partner which, while quickly suppressed, is a major indication of a failing marriage.
For example, when after much stonewalling, I finally managed to get a meeting with Debra Macleod at BEIS who is now in charge of the furniture regulations, there were a few comments she made unconsciously which gave away her true position. Generally, she spent two hours avoiding the key question I put to her, which was: "Given that your department has proved the match test doesn't work in practice in around 90% of cases, do you agree that UK sofas are unsafe?" But there were three moments when she didn't realise what she'd actually said, mainly because deliberate ignorance is never a fool-proof tactic to take.
First, I asked her: "What are you doing about BS7177?" She paused then said, "Er . . . remind me?" To which I said this is a key area in the review of the regulations that she was telling everyone BEIS was working hard on, therefore she ought to know. I said it was to do with mattress covers. Her answer to this was another unconscious giveaway: "That's a British Standard and I'm not expected to know about standards, just regulations." However, the Furniture Regulations are based around modified British Standards.
The third giveaway was when I asked her what was happening with interliners. She said, "What's an interliner?" She'd previously been telling me that BEIS was working hard on the returns for the 2016 consultation. One of the proposals in that consultation was for interliners. These three comments were definitive proof that despite having been in charge of these regulations for 18 months (at the time), she hadn't even looked at them, let alone understood them.
Now, you probably won't be able to get these people to face the punishment they should receive for this kind of deliberate obfuscation, lying and deliberate incompetence but there are two values in noting these kinds of unconscious responses. First, you have it on record if there ever is a future reckoning, such as a public inquiry. Second, their animal mind that is shaped to do everything to avoid responsibility will know that you know.