Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Obfuscation as a bureaucratic tactic

My current goal is to simplify my life; it’s really a continuation of a process that started five or six years ago when my workplace decided to make the lives of its employees difficult by making the workplace a more complicated place to be. Simplification, simplification, simplification. Employees are best served by understanding the infrastructure and systems around them, because in so doing, they can do their work efficiently without much fuss and bother. In other words, those systems and infrastructure should be understandable to most. Bureaucracies are best served when employees do not understand the infrastructure and systems around them. Bureaucracies ensure their own existence in this way. They also ensure that employees hit a wall at every turn; the bureaucrats must thus step in to help the employees cope with their new and complicated workplaces. Why are they complicated? Because as sure as tomorrow comes, most modern workplaces have been through one or several reorganizations or mergers that have wreaked havoc on the lives of the employees involved. Bureaucrats to the rescue! They can guide us through the difficult processes by coming up with new and innovative routines and measuring systems, new business philosophies and trends, and increased expectations of employee productivity. Because such expectations always accompany major reorganizations and mergers.  

Obfuscation has become a large part of what drives bureaucracies forward and of what makes them larger. To obfuscate is to confuse; to make obscure or unclear. It is my contention that obfuscation is a strategic tactic to increase the number of administrators such that the ratio of administrators to other types of employees grows ever greater. I don’t have a problem with the existence of bureaucracies; I realize they are there to help us and they do in fact help us. However, I have a problem with them when they become too big. When they lumber forward without any concern for the employees they serve. My goal at work now is to seek out those administrators whom I know will help me (translated—explain things to me in an understandable way), and I have found at least two that take the time to do that, and they are worth their weight in gold to me. Otherwise, we find ourselves at the mercy of a system that does not and will not bother to explain to us why external funds that we have brought in via our grant applications are suddenly no longer ours to use—they go into a ‘big departmental pot’ that exists for general use. We are not told why accounting systems will not permit the transfer of usable funds to the next year if we have not managed to use up the funds we have at our disposal this year (in other words, we are not allowed to determine for ourselves when we want to spend the little money we are granted). We are not told why deficits suddenly appear as surpluses in some monthly accounting reports. There is no sensible (in my book) explanation for why income that is generated this year cannot be included as income in the month of December. The language that is used in some information letters to employees is deliberately vague or confusing. Even some middle-level leaders I know have a hard time understanding the mandates that are handed down to them from high-level bureaucrats/managers. Worse still, the number of forms we have to fill out to get help to fix small problems that could be solved via a telephone call, to order lab consumables, to update on the progress of PhD students, and to update on the progress of a particular project to a funding agency has become overwhelming. Work life is dictated by an endless stream of forms and reports that someone writes, others fill out, and others file away unread. These forms are necessary in the sense that a bureaucrat decided that they were necessary, and as long as they are filled out, the bureaucrat's job is done. It doesn’t matter that we use an inordinate amount of time on such things that are forced upon us. And no matter what type of event occurs at work (with the exception of a Christmas lunch or dinner), we are asked to fill out evaluation reports that are worded in such a way that you are often forced to agree to a way of thinking with which you do not agree.

But that is not the main issue. The main issue is that everything in modern workplaces, at least in the public sector, has become complicated and difficult. Just the idea of applying for research funding from the European Union would stop you dead in your tracks. You need one or two people on your staff who can work full-time on this, something most small research groups do not have. The paper trail is enormous, ditto the amount of time spent on submitting a proposal and writing an application that is likely to be denied funding on the basis of some minute mistake somewhere in the application. It can take several years to apply and to receive a response. In short, it is not worth sending an application because if you are a small research group, you will spend your valuable time on minutiae and not on much else. Real work goes out the window. If you are smart, you avoid these things. But they are examples of systems that are obscure, difficult, confusing and ultimately unclear. The goal becomes unclear. Why am I doing this? Why am I wasting my time? Why don’t I understand? And finally, why does my workplace not want me to understand how it’s run and what is going on? The answer? Knowledge is power. The less employees know about how their workplaces run, the better. Those in power can keep their power and can pretty much do as they like. They can order others about with impunity because no one understands the system enough to know how to fight back. A strange new world, one I do not like and one I do not feel comfortable in. If that makes me a negative employee, then so be it. I want a return to ‘small is beautiful’. I think small is best now because small is understandable, small is transparent, small is clear. I would prefer to work in a small workplace now. It won’t happen, but it is definitely my preference.