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In my opinion

Death by download: the problem of misguided bureaucracy

Eliminating bureaucracy is not possible, but paying attention to simple guidelines for best practice can go a long way towards reducing its expansion.


Ask professors what most limits their ability to do their job. Many will tell you that it is the additional workload imposed by a seemingly endless parade of new and revised policies, regulations, guidelines and forms. Others will identify frequent requests for redundant information, conflicting policies and deadlines, and attendance at meetings of minor importance that fail to start or end on time.

A substantial portion of these problems arise from the increased attention that universities and other institutions must place on human health and safety, risk management, ethics of human and animal research, and issues associated with human rights and freedoms. But many others emerge through repeated downloading of administrative responsibilities from one level to a “lower” one. The downloading often occurs with minimal, if any, consultation with those expected to complete the extra work, and similarly with those most responsible for delivering the institution’s fundamental mission.

Multi-layered digital reporting designed to reduce the workload of bureaucrats exacerbates the problem, seldom if ever results in fewer administrators, and often yields the opposite. Each inflationary step in the hierarchy creates more administrative work for faculty, and less time and opportunity to fulfill their mandate of teaching, research and service. Essential front-line staff face similar difficulties.

The failure to consult reveals a top-down administrative style that breeds confusion, frustration, anger and resentment. Worse, it is often out of step with the realities faced by faculty. Procedures and policies designed in the context of day-to-day activities of administrators often depart significantly from those of faculty.

Poignant examples can often be found in policies and procedures such as those associated with risk management and animal care. Such policies and procedures, designed by well-intentioned and otherwise helpful administrators, can fail when the authors lack relevant first-hand experience. Similar problems originate when overworked administrators are tasked to meet proliferating demands of senior leadership and government.

Although eliminating bureaucracy is impossible, attention to simple guidelines for best practice can go a long way towards reducing its further expansion. There are two important side benefits: 1) the guidelines ensure collegial decisions that foster a cooperative and efficient workplace with common goals and objectives, and 2) they reduce the workloads of all employees.

Bureaucratic structures vary among institutions, as does the administrative style and support that different universities provide to their faculty and staff. Administrators in progressive and collegial institutions may find that they already implement many of the guidelines.

Herewith, some simple guidelines for bureaucratic best practice:

1. All policies, regulations, rules and forms should improve the common good, and clearly document how they do so.

2. No policy, regulation or rule should detract from persons’ abilities to perform their fundamental duties.

3. All administrative actions should support, and be shown to support, the primary mandate of the institution by facilitating the efforts of employees directly responsible for delivering the mandate.

4. Only bureaucrats and administrators should do the work of bureaucrats and administrators.

5. The first response, when faced with a new administrative challenge, should be “can this be resolved without creating a new form, policy or regulation?”

6. Any new policy, regulation or form should remove or replace at least one existing policy, regulation or form.

7. All edits to an existing form should retain the form’s original length.

8. No form, report, survey or poll should request information, other than prepopulated identifiers, that is available, or requested, in another form, report, survey or poll.

9. No policy should require approvals or authorization of rules or behaviours already covered by other policies or government rules, bylaws and statutes.

10. Any document that requires signatures should also require the author’s signature.

11. Only persons with first-hand experience following or using a process, procedure or regulation should oversee or contribute to that process, procedure or regulation.

12. Any form, report, survey or poll should benefit the person who must complete it.

13. Only individuals who must complete a form should create one.

14. All forms must be tested for completion errors, and vetted by at least one additional individual required to complete it, before being distributed.

15. All forms, surveys and polls must include the name and contact information of the authors who created them, and the highest authority who approved them.

16. All electronic forms should be designed and circulated as user-friendly documents that can easily be filled and signed with universally available software.

17. Recipients of an electronic form, survey or poll should never be required to print a paper copy.

18. All acronyms in a form, report, or general communication must first be defined in full.

19. All forms, reports, surveys or polls should seek simple binary (e.g., yes/no) responses.

20. Email messages, replies, and all other correspondence should be sent only to those individuals who must receive it.

21. Any administrative action that does not require quick attention and resolution should be deemed superfluous.

Douglas Morris is an emeritus professor of biology at Lakehead University.

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  1. Michael Baumann / July 28, 2020 at 16:09

    Having been forced to descend into the netherworld of bureaucracy for a decade — I have seen things you wouldn’t believe — the only guideline I could add is this: Hire bureaucrats that possess competence and integrity.