Organisation - October 12, 2017

Can the bureaucracy be tamed?

Carina Nieuwenweg

Reducing the amount of red tape is a major topic in WUR. And yet staff feel it is only increasing. Take the extra step recently introduced in MyProjects, with researchers having to tick the box if they are using personal data. Can we tame the bureaucracy beast?

text Carina Nieuwenweg illustration Henk van Ruitenbeek

Anton van Bunschoten, Education and Research assistant at BioNanoTechnology


‘As an assistant the main issue for me is time tracking. Some financers require extensive records of the time and money spent, but not all projects make such strict demands. So I wonder whether MyProjects is based on the highest level of record-keeping or whether WUR is legally required to keep such detailed records. Personally at any rate, I hardly ever deal with a fund that wants to see a record of every hour I spend on the work. So I wonder who I’m doing the time tracking for. What I see as worrying is that you need a whole level of management to manage a scientific project these days. I think it’s odd that the reporting has become so complex and demanding that chair groups can’t handle it themselves and have to spend some of their research funding on it.’

Marie-Luise Puhlmann, research assistant at Human Nutrition


‘At the Human Nutrition department there are strict rules about project registration. We follow the same procedure as in pharmaceutical research. We have to write a protocol according to a load of rules, which then goes before WUR’s Medical Ethical Committee. Such a protocol often goes before the committee several times; it can easily take six months before you can get started. Also, during a research day we have to record and register everything: every deviation from the norm has to be reported. So there is a lot of bureaucracy. But nutrition research is sensitive; we are working with people and the welfare of participants is our highest priority. It is all still done on paper at the moment. Working digitally should make it easier.’

Sjon Hendriks, IT technician at Microbiology

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‘I see bureaucracy as a necessity for getting and keeping an overview of certain things. But we do have to watch out that we don’t take it to extremes. A good example of this is the deadline for time tracking, which is much too soon, so what we record is just made up. This puts additional pressure on the administration. I notice that more and more systems are being installed because of the increasing student numbers. As an example, we’ve set up a system to keep track of which students have already received lab instruction, and whether they understood it all.’

Gert Jan Hofstede, associate professor of Applied Information Technology


‘We can’t do without bureaucracy but I am spending more and more expensive time on it, while I have less and less time to spare. MyProjects is not at all user-friendly, and then there are various other difficult and ever-changing systems, for registering holidays or travel expenses, for instance. Even more irritating is the fact that time-tracking is so pointless. You don’t fill in what you actually do, but what you should be doing according to your project or portfolio. So the purpose of it becomes to “feed the beast”. That frustrates me, especially because we are also assessed on the basis of our publications and student evaluations.’

Paula Harkes, PhD researcher at Nematology

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‘My impression is that the bureaucracy isn’t too bad at the university. I have a lot of freedom as a PhD student. I don’t have to work set hours or keep records of exactly how I divide my time. These are things I probably would have to do in most companies. And to me that is one of the big advantages of doing a PhD. I am free to decide to start at around 10 o’clock and go on until 7 in the evening. But you do need a certain level of bureaucracy; we can’t do everything on the basis of trust.’

Bastiaan Meerburg, head of the department of Livestock and Environment


‘WUR simply does have to fulfil certain criteria with regard to privacy law. If that can be done relatively easily by ticking a box in MyProjects, I think that’s great. What is more important to me is that we cut down on the bureaucracy in the bidding process for projects. If we want to be involved in the business world we’ve got to put the client’s priorities first. Sometimes a client wants a proposal within a week. That causes problems here because so many boxes have to be ticked. Everyone has to tick a box: the project leader, the controller, the head of department, the directors and a legal advisor. So if one person is on holiday you lose a couple of weeks. But it is a question of mentality above all: there is a strong inclination towards risk avoidance in this organization. We’ve got a way to go in that respect.’

Jan Kamminga, personal professor of Functional Genetics


‘As I see it, bureaucracy is wanting to do everything according to lists. And there is too much of that. Lists of criteria for tenure track, lists of the qualities of the best universities or publications. We live in a list-loving country, where people think everything is fine as long as you can tick all the boxes on a list. The underlying assumption is that lists give us control over quality. Whereas in fact, because of the lists you can end up neglecting the substance of the work. We’ve gone over the top with this in recent years. Alongside their actual work, teachers spend more and more time on course evaluations which they can be judged on. Evaluations should be made to measure. Someone who doesn’t fit into the tightly defined framework of a list can still be incredibly valuable for the organization.’