Brazil (the movie) describes a society in which the Ministry of information retrieval dominates every aspect of society and there is a form to be filled for every action. One can even get a receipt for a husband (after filling a form that acknowledges receiving that receipt).
This was supposed to be funny, but I have had similar experiences in the academia. Buying a computer or a chair from one’s own funding can be as laborious (and in the UK at least, this is only possible from a selected list of providers that have agreements with the University). The record for me was a chair that took over 3 months to materialize in my office after doing all the ceremonial paperwork, and a number-crunching machine that I never bought because going through the standard providers resulted in a tag doble the market price.
One practice that seems to be common (if not systematic) is doublemarking, which is obviously time-consuming. But the worst symptom is just the trail of paperwork that every action leaves behind. The administration wants the academics to fill detailed reports for every action they perform (buying materials being only one of them). And it seems that the higher you get in the food chain, the worse it gets (it seems that junior faculty are shielded).
Although private business are held as the model to follow (with all the quality assurance lingo), it seems that the academia actually actually sports higher levels of process monitoring: and it seems that these amounts of paperwork would choke any business that would implement them.
The Guardian (Education) has an article that says it best:
The problem is that bureaucrats prefer to introduce monitoring and reporting in order to forestall problems that they expect, rather than dealing with the tiny number of such problems that might actually appear. This is evident in the constant reporting on all sorts of things. Instead of the central administration reacting to problems that come to their attention, they expect departments to spell out their activities in mind-numbingly detailed reports – hardly any of which result in any action.
The consequences are that most academics have learned that the time invested in filling these forms amounts to nothing, most of the time, and the develop strategies to minimize wasted time.
Now, it is difficult to estimate which academic “timezone” (the US, the UK-or Europe-, and Australia) is the most affected by excessive paperwork. I have experience at US and UK institutions and the UK seems to be consistently worse, but my sample is small so I don’t think I can draw any conclusion.
The truth is that the amount of fun one can get out of the academic way of life is inversely proportional to the amount of paperwork required. What I really want to know is, if this getting worse overall? Does it get worse when one progresses in your academic career? Because that would mean that we are all doomed to have less and less fun as we grow old…