Bureaucracy, LEAD-ing to Mistrust, in the University sector

clayton-house_3483Bureaucracy is like Kudzu – it s invasive, persistent, useful in small doses but when unchecked it is destructive and self-perpetuating even when it engulfs that which was supporting it.  Take the LEAD programme designed for Irish universities. LEAD stands for Living Equality and Diversity, and it’s an online programme designed for all staff in Irish universities. The press release describes it thusly

The LEAD programme is a self-paced modular learning tool that features an intuitive navigation system with core content split into five modules of learning.  Module topics cover ‘Understanding diversity’, ‘What’s it got to do with you?’, ‘From compliance to commitment’, ‘Recruitment and Selection’ and ‘Dignity and Respect’.  Each section contains video and multimedia stories and scenarios including interviews with university staff and students, interactive games and quizzes, and online instant assessments to offer staff valuable feedback on their learning.  By using this interactive and multimedia resource, staff will have the opportunity to consider and reflect on the part they play in building an inclusive culture across the university sector.

It takes between one (TCD) and two( UCC) hours, we are told, to go through this. All the aims, to promote diversity and to dignity, to ensure that people are treated as people, not as exemplars of ethnic or other groups, that’s a fantastic set to aim for. Its one that I would love to see becoming the norm in society, more so as a member of a multi-ethnic family.  TCD are making participation in this compulsory for all staff on interview panels. The various equality offices in the universities have wordings that suggest that all staff are in its ambit. Ok. So, what’s the problem?

First, the thing is inconsistent.  It is inherently itself not respectful of diversity. All staff, regardless, are treated the same.  There are a diversity of views on diversity. Some are more obnoxious than others, but they do exist. Do we serve well those populations towards whom the diversity initiative is aimed by ensuring that everyone else is the homogenous in their views and aims and interactions? It also would seem rather odd for all staff, regardless of past expertise or experience, to have to do this. When we treat everyone as a problem that’s a problem.

Second, there is a presumption of a problem that must be solved by a bureaucratic imposition. This is the norm now in the university sector. All problems of running complex organizations can be solved by enough large-scale top down interventions designed for all at all times. The result is  a bland homogenization and the growth of a kudzu of bureaucracy. In the UK the classic example of this is the requirement for everyone, regardless of teaching quality ex facto, to be sheepdipped into a variety of third level pedagogic training courses. TCD, and I suspect we are not alone in this, has a ‘one size fits nobody’ undergraduate course evaluation form, so bland and generic as to be meaningless in content and usefulness. The latter two represent blanket solutions to particular problems – some lecturers cant. Rather than focused interventions where a demonstrated problem exists a generic solution requiring a bureaucratic cadre is imposed on all.

Third, its costly. There are 13,812 employees in Irish universities as of 2012.  4,229 are academics. The OECD calculates that  on average in 2010 the total annual  per student spend across all categories of expenditure was just over $16,000. Assuming a 50h working week (which is what the data suggest) then we have an hourly cost of $6.66.  Pushing this across the sector and allowing 1-5h to complete the programme we find a  cost of just under $140,000. Small enough in the context of the total spend but is it justifiable? Was it even costed? Far too often these initiatives are put in place without regard to the cost.

Fourth, in TCD at least, the rule is that if one has not undertaken the LEAD program then one cannot sit on interview panels. This is doubly problematic. First, the incentive is NOT to take this programme. Not taking it means less work.  We often find this with bureaucratic micromanagement. It creates the bureaucratic equivalent of what Frederick the Great noted on war: he who bureaucratically organized to micromanage everything manages nothing. Second, and I am sure that this is the case in every university, HR representatives sit on all interview panels in TCD and are involved in the advertising and shortlisting. Of candidates. They are there explicitly to ensure that HR law and best practice, including one assumes issues around diversity and respect, are adhered to . Thus in the recruitment issue at least there is no clear need for this. Its part of a  growing creeping mistrust of colleagues. Academics cannot be trusted to do their work without bureaucratic oversight and micromanagement. How things are arranged are more and more direct oversight or standardization of processes. In organizational structure terms this leads to one of two outcomes. If direct supervision prevails we get centralized organizations. If process outcomes dominate we get a machine bureaucracy where technocrats dominate.  Looking at Irish universities we see this trend. As academic, technical and research staff are the operating core we need to seize back control, which leads to vertical and horizontal decentralization and a professional organization that trusts us. We know, for decades, from the work of Oiuchi that when tasks are ill-defined (“teach” , “research” … what could be fuzzier than that) and outcomes hard to measure that horizontal, flat organizations deliver better outcomes all round. t

LEAD has great aims. The flaws above don’t invalidate them. They merely serve to show how far things have slipped in Irish universities, where staff are not trusted and bureaucratic processes run rampant.


5 thoughts on “Bureaucracy, LEAD-ing to Mistrust, in the University sector

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Bureaucracy, LEAD-ing to Mistrust, in the University sector

  2. iainmacl

    You obviously haven’t completed the Leadership & Management module, Brian. That would put you on message. Oh, and of course you have to study it ‘in your own time’. 😉

  3. Niall O'Sullivan

    Not to mention that bureaucrats tend to create jobs for themselves…and work for everybody else!


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