Bureaucracy

September 3rd, 2019

Photo: Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Waco, Texas

“He went to the dark side.”

That is what professors say when a fellow faculty member decides to take even a temporary administrative position. There is clearly a distrust, or worse, of administrators on the part of faculty members in education.

I was at Baylor University for a conference for mid-level managers in higher education and one of the hot topics was why those in administration at all levels, are so disliked by the rank and file educators. I found it surprising that most of the attendees honestly didn’t have a clue about the causes of this hostility. I always thought it was pretty clear.
Most colleges can cite the year when their administrative staff members first outnumbered the faculty. Today, it is common to have two to one or even three to one ratios of administrators to faculty in colleges and universities. But, of course, this phenomenon is not limited to higher education. The explosion of bureaucrats and administrators is ubiquitous. It plagues business and industry as much, if not more, than education.

Why should we be concerned about this trend? It’s all about “paper.” Okay, most of it is electronic these days, but you get the idea. Every administrator must justify his job, so they all are forced to introduce new ideas, new “procedures” that somehow translate to “projects” for the non-administrators. And since there are now so many on the dark side, they compete for the work hours of those in the productive, non-administrative positions. These new ideas are often referred to by the productive employees as the “flavor-du-jour” because almost none of them are ever carried to completion. They are almost immediately displaced by the latest “great new idea.”

My experiences with this kind of nonsense are far too numerous to count. Among them were five different policies for travel reimbursement in a single fiscal year, four different three-year assessment plans, none of which ever made it past 18 months before being replaced by a new idea, and many other “great ideas” that we’ve had to live with. I’m sure everyone in the business world can tell similar horror stories.

This explosion of non-productive employees is exacerbated by the fact that each new administrator brings with him a few additional satellite employees such as administrative assistants, secretaries, etc. All these new workers have to justify their existence as well; they have to do something. So, they create new policies, new layers of paper. And that has costs.

First, we need more money to pay these employees. In the public sector, tax money is the first choice of course, but government is often reluctant to give increases sufficient to fund this exploding employee base. Choice two: go after grants. Of course, that means hiring more administrators to go apply for, and then manage the grants that are secured. Then, when the grants run out, the public sector is reluctant to lay off people, so they find some other place for them, in the administration, of course. And the dark side staff keeps growing.

In the private sector, there is a double jeopardy — two levels of administrators to deal with. Not only are the administrators within the company creating the usual extraneous, pointless work, but there are also millions of government administrators who also believe they have to justify their jobs as well. So, business is slapped with more regulations and hence, more paperwork. As a result, companies have to hire more administrators to deal with federal, state and local regulations. That is why many people feel the bulk of government is nothing more than a jobs program.

If you doubt my analysis of this issue, just look at your organization’s number of vice-president positions in 1980 compared to today.

The results of increased bureaucracy are pretty clear. In the private sector, more employees are now required but the same (or more likely, less) productive work is being done. Of course, this results in reduced profit. In the public sector the result is inevitably increased taxes. Meanwhile, the employees who are engaged in productive work are forced to spend more and more time buried in paperwork. After all, every new administrator MUST add at least one more layer of paper.

In my line of work, that means that each year, teachers have less and less time to spend on planning, grading and helping students. They have no choice but to let that important work go by the wayside so they can deal with the administrative load. Most just can’t work beyond about 60 hours a week for very long.

The solution seems obvious, but there is a problem. I read once that a simplified, postcard-sized tax return would put millions of accountants out of work. Removing the bulk of unnecessary administrators would make many times that number unemployed. That is not a good scenario for the nation’s economy, so we can’t afford to fix this problem overnight. All of these soon-to-be displaced people will have to be found jobs in the productive parts of business, industry and the public sector. To avoid an unemployment crisis, this will require a long-term, gradual shift in our thinking. We might start, say, by reducing the administrative and support staff by as little as 5% each year. Yeah…good luck with that. Companies would only hire new people to administer those reductions.

It won’t be easy…but just think about how our productivity as a nation would soar as a result of these once counterproductive employees, now contributing to the bottom line and the freeing up of all that formerly wasted time for the rest of us.
But till then, we have to continue with the system the way it is.

On my return from the conference, I had to deal with the nightmare of filing for reimbursement of my trip expenses. I had already filled out a battery of forms to get approval before taking the trip. Now I had to play the game again to actually get my money. My plan was to dedicate four hours of my day to the process.

I filled out a two-page form, gathered, scanned and attached all my receipts, a copy of the conference program, and copies of the prior approval emails from both my dean and my department head. I then had to write an explanation of why the trip was necessary. (For that, I just copied the same explanation I wrote in requesting the trip initially. It would be okay. I’m sure no one reads them anyway.) That was followed by trips around campus to secure signatures of the dean and department head, even though they both had signed off on the initial request for funds. Their offices were in separate buildings, about a quarter mile apart. Then I had to re-scan it all into a single file. Finally, I sent the required three copies of the electronic package to the business office. It took considerably more than the four hours allotted.

Two days later, I received a call from the Business Office. The woman said there was a problem with my reimbursement form. My mileage to the airport did not match the mileage she said I should show. It was too low. I explained that I drove from my home instead of from campus so the distance was less. She said the mileage had to be from campus. I pointed out that I was saving the college a bit of money and just being honest. She answered “The mileage has to be from campus.”

So the next day, I began the entire process again. This time I hoped to make it within the four hours allotted.

Bureaucracy! Life in triplicate. I think I’ll need three beers after work.

Regrets?

October 1st, 2016

gos-img_1625By Michael W. Gos

Waco, Texas

It had been a really hard day on the road.  I should point out that I hate driving.  I know—a strange affliction for a guy who wanders around Texas a lot just for fun.  On this day, I left Canyon, Texas, about seven in the morning and had driven all day.  It wasn’t too bad until I got to Eastland, but from there I was stuck behind a motor home going 20 miles per hour below the speed limit on a two-lane road.  For 40 miles, I could not negotiate a pass.  Every time I pulled out to take a peek, there was another car coming in the opposite direction.  It was frustrating.

Finally we came through a tiny town whose name I don’t even remember.  As we slowed for the only stop sign in town, I saw a series of parallel parking spaces on the right, all untaken.  I swerved hard to the right and raced through those parking spots to negotiate the pass.  Fortunately, there were no law enforcement personnel around and I got away with it.   Coupled with the countless previous attempts to pass, that slick move at the stop sign pushed my wife over the edge, but I figured it saved me more than two hours over the alternative, so I don’t regret taking the opportunity.

I finally arrived in Waco in the late afternoon.  I had come to do some photo work and I had a lot on the agenda.  I had only this afternoon to spend here and I had three sites I wanted to shoot: the Waco Mammoth National Monument, the spot where the Clintons burned the Branch Davidians, and the beautiful foot bridge across the Brazos River.   I checked into my hotel and then immediately went back out to begin work. I headed first for the bridge.

After studying the site and checking out the light levels, I made several photos of the bridge and the enormous bronze sculptures at its entrance.  I was fairly efficient and in less than half an hour, I had everything I needed.  I gave the photos a look over and was pleased with what I saw.  It was time to move on to the next site while I still had enough daylight to get something done.  But that’s not what happened.

Life is a non-stop parade of events and decisions.  Every step of the way we are presented with opportunities.  There are forks in the road, and at each one we have to decide, usually in short order, which way to go—which opportunities to accept and which to decline.  And, as Robert Frost points out in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” because “way leads on to way,” every decision we make sets us on a new path; one from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to back track should we later decide we would like to reverse the previous decision.  Once made, each of these choices puts us on the new path our lives will take from that point forward.

Many people look back on old decisions and wonder what would have happened if they had made the other choice.  Others go even further; they look back with regret.  “I should have made the other choice.”  But opportunities, once passed by, cannot be revisited again.  We have to move on from where we are.  As a result, as time goes on, the stack of missed opportunities grows until the pile becomes enormous, and for some people, that can be intimidating.  The regrets build.

But I think that few of us see the big picture, the full reality of the situation here.  Certainly, had we taken any of those opportunities when they presented themselves, our lives might have gone in a different direction.  And as a result of accepting them, we might have had other, new opportunities down the road that could have led to a better life—opportunities that we never even got to see because of earlier choices we made.  But there is another way to look at the issue.  Had we indeed made the other choice, we would not have had many of the opportunities we got to see as a result of the earlier decision we did make.  It seems to me, there isn’t much point in grieving over missed chances.  It all evens out in the wash.

Back in Waco, I found I just couldn’t bring myself to move on to my next destination.  I was still so tied up in knots from the hard drive that I needed to just sit awhile.  In the shade of an old oak tree on the bank of the river, I took a moment to sit at a picnic table and just relax.

That moment lasted a little over three hours and when I finally felt like moving on, it was nearly dark.  I would not be getting the other photos I needed on this day.

It would have been easy to look at the decision I made that day and think I really missed an opportunity.  Now, to get the photos I need, I’ll have to make another trip to Waco.  I passed on a chance and will have to pay a heavy price.  But I don’t see it that way.

Having a good, brisk sit at the river transformed me from nervous, irritable, and frankly, a general pain to be around, to a laid back, relaxed guy who was just enjoying a beautiful summer’s evening on the river.  To this day, my wife comments on how she sat there next to me just watching the stress melt away.  In her eyes, it was such an improvement over the grouch that first arrived in Waco that she was perfectly willing to spend three hours just sitting there.  But there was even more benefit gained by the choice I made.  The fact is, I was having fun, and after all, isn’t that what life is all about?  Today, it is clear I made the right decision.

When thinking about missed opportunities, it is easy to be pessimistic.  It seems almost logical to get down on ourselves for making the wrong choices.  That’s understandable.  Our lives at any given moment are nothing more than the sum total of all the decisions we made to this point.  But we also need to see the bigger picture. It is critical to always remember that it is also a missed opportunity not to idle away a few hours when the chance presents itself.