Friday, November 20, 2015

Fulfilling the bureaucratic minimum

There is no doubt that universities and research institutions are becoming more bureaucratic. This is arguably from the increased demand for accountability and from the rise of the managerial class. This means more paperwork, more boring meetings, and more rules and regulations. How do we cope?
Let me first give two extreme responses and suggest an alternative.
John and Joan could be faculty, postdocs, or graduate students.

1. John is focussed on research and teaching. Afterall that is the mission of the university not all this bureacractic nonsense. Any emails from administrators are deleted. In fact he has placed a “block sender” on some. He never responds to requests to complete on line surveys, fire safety training, or annual reports. He does not attend departmental meetings. If forced to attend meetings he brings his laptop and catches up on email.
Deadlines for reports, drafts of grant applications, and exam papers are missed. The only way he will complete an administrative task, even after several email requests, is if someone comes and knocks on his door. Sometimes he tells secretaries, administrators, or colleagues if they want the task done they should do it for him. The only tasks he does actually complete are done at the last minute.
John is not “well liked” either by colleagues or local administrators.

2. Joan is the opposite of John. She is a very conscientiousness member of the community. She reads all the admin emails (including the attachments) carefully, actively participates in all the meetings, updates all the databases, and writes carefully crafted reports. She completes all the tasks in a timely manner. Sometimes she agonises about the content and wording of her reports and gets colleagues to give her feedback on drafts. She gives managers detailed and constructive feedback about a range of their iniatives and issues.

Both extremes present problems.
Basically, John is selfish because he leaves others to cover for him, on some tasks that one just cannot avoid doing.
On the other hand, Joan is wasting a lot of her time, that could arguably be better spent on teaching or research (or on non-work pursuits!). She is also “enabling” the propogators of bureacratic nonsense.

Somehow we need to find a balance between John and Joan. Let me suggest a simple question to decide what to do and what not to do.
If I don’t complete this task (or at least complete it in a timely manner) is it going to inconvenience someone else (because they will have to do it or keep bugging me to do it)?
Fulfilling this bureacratic minimum leaves significant room for tuning out a lot of the noise, deleting a lot of email, skipping some meetings, and quickly completing reports by "box ticking" and cutting and pasting.


  1. I am a department head for a reasonably large academic department, so I participate in (and create) my fair share of bureaucratic activities. Let me offer two arguments for completing your bureaucratic activities promptly, both couched in terms of your own self interest:
    1. A key premise of the "getting things done" time management philosophy is to do any task that takes less than 2 minutes immediately. If you are going to spend more time putting off a task, being bugged by your department head, keeping it on your to-do list etc. than it takes to complete the task, you have wasted your valuable time. Need to complete mandatory online safety training? Do it today and then move on.
    2. At some point you will surely want something from your department head/administration (matching funds for a proposal, extra space for your group, special help from an admin assistant to run a conference.....). Which person in Ross' two examples will most likely receive help like this when asked?

    1. David,

      Thanks for the helpful comment. I agree with your points. But, I should put the post in the Australian context. Many of the tasks we are asked to do take not 2 minutes but 30 to 60. We are asked to attend meetings that are not one hour but 2, 3 or 4 hours (seriously!). A problem is that, unlike you, many university managers have little or no experience with research or teaching.

  2. Prof. Sholl, I am a bit surprised by your last remark.

    Isn't it the premise of an academic institution to evaluate requests (for anything) on the intrinsic added value of the aid that is requested (offset against their cost)?

    As department head, I believe that is what you should do.
    I would argue that if one instead lets tit-for-tat balancing of aggravation rule the evaluation of requests for help, the person who is in charge of deciding who gets helped, is not the right person for the job.

    Receiving help, and especially in the first two examples you list, should only be evaluated on their intrinsic value - to the department if the dept. head is doing the evaluation.

    Sorry for being critical, but I was highly surprised by your response.

    1. pcs, I apologize if I didn't make my point clearly before. I was really just commenting on human nature: it is easy to help for any of us to help people who are habitually cooperative and pleasant, and it is more challenging to go out of one's way to help people who habitually are uncooperative and unpleasant.

      I was certainly not arguing that a "tit-for-tat" approach from an administrator is justified. I was mainly appealing to readers' self-interest....if you are perceived by your administration as someone who is a positive contributor (in the broadest sense) rather than a "problem case" you are more likely to be treated better in the long term.

    2. I see.
      It is certainly in an employee's interest to do what you said.
      And we all suffer from human nature - whether it has a positive effect or a negative one.

      Your observations are correct even if in an ideal world they should not be.
      I certainly am not "ideal" (and maybe that was visible in my post).
      Thanks for the clarification!