flowing motion

Found on a British train! The lost art of slick administration

Posted on: October 21, 2009

I learned from the masters of administration!

I went to a university where we moved through a degree programme in lock-step.  In year one, we took 2.5 subjects, 2 compulsory papers from each of the first 2, and one paper from the third.  In year two, we took 4 papers from one of the first two subjects and 1 from the second.  And the same in year three, but a different set.

The sum of variation allowed was changing the order around 5:0 and 3:2, or if you were really smart, taking a 6th paper.

The university waited for no one

Not even babies!  The university took a simple view that examinations were taken once and once only and deferred only for matters totally outside our control.  Sporting matches, babies that after all arrive on quite a predictable schedule, family celebrations – were all deemed matters under our control.

Even being detained without trial by various rogue governments wasn’t deemed a reason to vary the schedule!  The university made a slight concession and brought you exam to your in jail!

Good administration leads to assured output & a productive life

The net effect of this policy is that the university opened and shut on time. People began degrees and finished them. The simplicity of the administration in that university was just stunning.

All requests had to be made before the event. Nothing was considered retrospectively. All decisions were made on facts marshalled on one piece of paper.  Decisions were made against clear criteria that were public and you knew what you could request from whom and on what grounds. All decisions were reviewed at the next level up where they were considered against new criteria.

A lecturer (professor) graded your paper and the lecturer’s colleagues approved the mark. Those marks were put together and an inter-Department committee approved your GPA/class of degree. An inter-Faculty committee checked that the Faculty committees weren’t being too lenient or too hard.  An eminently logical, rational, fair and transparent environment.

Lock-step systems can be inefficient when misunderstood

Lock-step systems don’t always produce efficiency or fairness, though.   I came out of that system quite well, and I am not unhappy that I studied psychology, sociology and anthropology. But I had actually wanted to study psychology, economics and mathematics – which I was very good at.

Novices need guidance not on the system but how the system will serve their goals

To achieve that combination, someone with knowledge of the system needed to sit my 17 year old self down and ask me what I wanted to do.

The answer would have been for me to enrol in the Arts Faculty for a B.A , to read psychology (2 papers) & economics (2 papers) in the Faculty of Social Studies, and Mathematics (2 papers) in the Faculty of Science!

Apart from being too complicated for a noobe to find, that solution would have made me a little insecure because a BA (General) has a lot less status than a B.Sc. (Hons) and I wouldn’t have read Sociology (upsetting my father).  I would have studied though what I wanted to study and created the choice of transferring in second year to a straight Honours in any of the three subjects, or continuing with a more general mix including picking up Sociology in second year.

Would I have been better off if I had taken this road? Who knows!  What I do know is that the system was more concerned with its lock-step, which was very efficient, than making sure I developed to my full potential.

Lock-step systems require highly qualified front-line staff who understand the values and goals as well as the plan

I quite like lock-step systems because they give people a clear model of what to do.  We need to ‘see ahead’ when we are a ‘noobe’.

But we can waste resources and time too easily when we don’t distinguish values from goals from plans.

  • We had three values in our case– broad first year, Honours (meaning specialize) in 2nd and 3rd year, and finish neatly in three years.
  • The plan is the lock-step system I described at the top of the post.
  • The goal was my goal – to study psychology, economics and mathematics.  That got lost.

To make sure that the (usually) naive client pursues their goal, we need good frontline staff who can find out what my goal is – or what the client’s goal is.  That is paramount.

  • We only use the model to communicate the values concretely. It shouldn’t be a strait-jacket.
  • Then we make a plan that fits our streamlined system, adheres to our values, and allows the client to pursue their goal directly in the comfort of our well run service.

Most systems in Britain are plan-led.  Lock-step supersedes common sense.

I see so much in Britain where the plan seems to override the goal.

We’ve borrowed 175 billion this year to keep going. That is 3000 pounds per man, woman and child. Not that much, hey?

I bet we could simplifiy our services to cost less and achieve heaps more by having

  • much simpler models (a lock-step model to convey the idea)

  • spending more time finding out the goals of individuals

  • and lastly creating an individual plan to navigate the system.

This wouldn’t put people out-of-work, it would just allow a lot more to be done at a fraction of the cost, allowing the country to make more money to pay the bills!

We the unhappy punters would feel better and get more done. We would spend less time on the phone talking to call centres and officials whose main job it does seem is to fill in meaningless bits of paper for meaningless procedures whose ultimate destination is a a database left on a train.

P.S. The people who thought up the systems at the well-run uni were Scots.  We have the expertise.  We just don’t seem to be using it.

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