Paper weights

July 30, 2015

Bureaucracy has become a hot topic after the recent publication of David Graeber’s book The Utopia of Rules (“Compliant captives in a paper cage”, Features, 21 May). In terms of form-filling, I would agree with his advice: if you suspect a form is “pointless”, do not fill it out and wait to see what happens. You will probably cut out one-third of forms this way. But I think the apparent indignity experienced through filling out forms is a bit extreme – purely administrative form-filling for the typical academic role is likely to take less than one hour per week. But I confess that when I am away from the university there can be nothing more frustrating than when an email arrives demanding my signature on a piece of paper.

Bureaucracy is an unavoidable effect of large-scale human organisation. Try to imagine a university without any records of its activities – do you think this would lead to a better system? The challenge, as Graeber concludes, is how we can live playfully alongside bureaucracy – creating a system that is sustainable and fair, but also open to creativity.

Mark Gatenby

I suspect that Mark Gatenby has a greater tolerance of form-filling than I. The time-sheet system under which I toil is particularly soul-destroying in the utterly transparent nature of its pointlessness. I receive an automated reminder each month to fill in the hours that I’ve worked across two projects. I am costed on to each for a particular percentage of time, and I am left to assume that this percentage must be reflected in what I report. Not only is this impossible to do accurately, but were one to structure tasks according to a monthly time quota, rather than according to the demands generated by the project, one would be a terrible researcher. The bottom line: you must tell the system what it wants to hear, not what happened. Accordingly, I ignore these requests. Then, every 12 months, I get an email telling me that my time sheets “need to be done”. I usually ask the sender why. They reply that they “need to be done”.

I spend half an hour trying to remember my password (the system makes you change it regularly and not reuse old ones). I stew in my rage while I wait for the reset to arrive. I experience a moment of pleasure when designing a new, expletive-ridden password. It lasts as long as it takes me to realise that the next time I won’t remember this password.

In the spirit of resistance, I devised a means of maximal efficiency when filling out the time sheet. I divide the total monthly paid hours by the percentage I am formally allocated to each project. I then report working 18-hour days (the maximum it allows you to enter) for as many days as it takes to fill the required quota for each project. Every time I enter “18” into a box, I have to tab to the next box, at which point there is a second-long pause while the page saves the entry. In this second, I think about the fact that my life is finite and I’m closer to death now than I was a second ago.

I end up with a time sheet that shows me working 160 hours in nine days and taking the rest of the month off. Despite my act of defiance, I am nevertheless furious, because the system accepts this absurd record as legitimate. The system is called “AGRESSO”, as if the designers wanted me to know I’m being trolled.

Murray Goulden

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