Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible.
-Javier Pascual Salcedo
You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for the bureaucrat, procedures are everything and outcomes are nothing.
If an idea can survive a bureaucratic review and be implemented, then it wasn’t worth doing.
-Mollison’s Bureaucracy Hypothesis
Pointless bureaucracy is infuriating for us all. It seems to spring up naturally in all large institutions. I think of it like some sort of ratcheting process — it’s easy to create but hard to get rid of. As a result, bureaucracy accumulates slowly like cruft. How many times have you heard the following phrases at a big company or university:
“Yes, I know it’s silly, too. But to get your request approved you’ve got to do it.”
“I’d like to help you — I understand that this is an exceptional situation — but I honestly don’t have the authority to bend the rules here.”
“I’m sorry, that’s the way it’s always been.”
I recently defended my Ph.D. dissertation at a large university. Successfully defending consisted of two main parts: 1) Thoroughly preparing for the defense itself, and 2) Completing the most boring real-life “point-and-click” adventure game ever, one that I call, in the spirit of the old Sierra Online games: Dissertation Quest IV: The Hunt For Signatures.
My advisor was out of the country a few weeks before I was to defend. This resulted in a gradual intensification of what I call my “nerd anger” over the procedures for getting forms approved. Now, nerd anger is that feeling we all have when we realize there is a much simpler way of doing things — but the convention requires us to do it in a roundabout inefficient way. It is what drives us to program automation for monotonous tasks.
Now let me describe the roundabout procedure for getting a form approved:
1] Find the form online and fill it out
2] Print it out
3] Sign it
4] Scan it in
5] Email it to my professor
My advisor, in a foreign country with spotty internet access, is then expected to:
4] Print out the form from the email
5] Sign it
6] Scan it in
7] Email it back to me.
Now, my responsibility is simple:
8] Keep going to the office of whomever needs the form until they are actually there
9] Give them the form
So completing this for various forms was just a massive pain. And my anger grew. At first I didn’t understand why it was making me so angry. But then I just thought about how I would code the solution.
First of all, any physical form is completely and utterly unnecessary. This also implies: requiring physical signatures is completely and utterly unnecessary. Both of these are just stone-age activities. I cannot state enough how ridiculous it is: What physical form will not just need to be re-typed into a computer system of some kind eventually by a secretary? You should just have a simple web form instead!
Also, with regards to signatures, computer-signing of electronic forms is not only vastly more efficient, simple to implement, and independent of physical locality, but also, it is a much better solution because it is far more secure. A squiggly signature can be faked (and whoever verifies them anyways?) while the firepower required to bust an encrypted signature is significant.
Anyways what this all boils down to is that the bureaucratic cruft of forms and signatures (while it will go away some day in the future), is here to stay for the near term. But the simple system that replaces it will look something like this:
1] Find the form online and fill it out
This is where my personal responsibility ends!
The form is then forwarded automatically to my advisor, who:
2] Approves it via electronic signature.
And then the form is forwarded automatically to whoever needs the information, and automatically entered into a database.
This kind of system is probably in place in many institutions already, but I think there is room for a start-up to completely disrupt this space with a simple-as-pie works-out-of-the-box product that could make them a pile of cash while saving huge institutions a pile of cash at the same time. Win-win! And I have won’t to be angry about hunting for signatures anymore.