University Bureaucracy Is Driving Me Mad!!!

I understand that where there are institutions, there must also be bureaucracy. I know that when I work with a new university, I need to fill in a New Supplier Form for their records, and someone will have to raise a purchase order before I can get paid. This is how most universities work. The initial form-filling can be a bit of a pain, and it can take a while to get set up on the system, but once that’s done, the admin is usually straightforward. I do a job, a purchase order arrives in my inbox, I create an invoice for the specified amount bearing the purchase order number, email it off, then some time later the money appears in my bank account.

That kind of administrative overhead seems reasonable and proportionate for the kind of work I do and the amounts I charge. Most of my invoices are in three figures or the small end of four. However, some universities have a massive administrative overhead for new suppliers. I’ve just come across one at the other end of a very long spectrum. Nameless University requires me to do the following:

  1. Complete a New Supplier Form
  2. Complete a Vendor Appraisal Questionnaire
  3. Read and understand their Terms and Conditions for Purchase
  4. Complete a Supplier Engagement Tool online

The New Supplier Form is on a spreadsheet and has 22 questions. The Vendor Appraisal Questionnaire is two pages of A4 and has several of the same questions that are on the New Supplier Form.

The Terms and Conditions for Purchase are 11 pages long. Being savvy in these matters, I skipped straight to the insurance section, where I found that they want me to hold £5m in public liability insurance and £1m in professional indemnity insurance. My own insurers, in whose interests it is to sell me as much insurance as possible, have told me that I only need £2m in public liability and £250,000 in professional indemnity for the kind of work I do. To raise my cover to the levels demanded by Nameless University would cost me more than I will earn from my work with them.

The online Supplier Engagement Tool was the icing on the cake. Sample question: ‘Is there someone in your organisation who is responsible for sustainability? To qualify, sustainability must form 50% or more of the person’s job role.’ Yes, there is someone in my organisation who is responsible for sustainability. It’s me. I make sure we buy recycled paper and compost our teabags. But is that 50% of my job role? Is it heck. For a start it only takes about one minute a week to ensure that my business is as sustainable as possible, and for a second thing, if I spent half my time on sustainability, I wouldn’t be able to earn a living.

Most of the questions in the Supplier Engagement Tool were irrelevant to me, so I ended up answering almost all of them with the ‘other, please specify’ option. At the end of the process I got a personalised action plan for my business. This turned out to be a pdf of a single page with my company name at the top and NOTHING ELSE AT ALL.

I said in an email to the person commissioning my work that Nameless University was by far the most bureaucratic I had come across (it is). That person forwarded my email to the Head of Procurement. The HoP wrote me a lengthy email saying, among other things, that it is ‘standard business practice’ to operate in this way for any contract over £1,000 in value. (As this is the first university which has done this to me, I’m not sure what the standard is here, let alone the business; even the local authorities I used to work with didn’t operate like this for costs under five figures.)

The HoP did acknowledge that there was duplication between the spreadsheet and the questionnaire, and said they are ‘looking to merge the documents into one in the future’ (a job that could be done in five minutes flat). The HoP also said that ‘insurances can be negotiated… with suppliers such as yourself’ – so why not put that in the Terms and Conditions of Purchase? Some suppliers will reach that point and conclude that they are ineligible. Bureaucracy is not only a nuisance, it can also exclude, which is unlikely to be in anyone’s best interests.

Apparently the Supplier Engagement Tool will enable Nameless University to ensure that all their suppliers ‘fully comply with the recently introduced Modern Slavery Act‘. I know I can drive myself hard at times, but I didn’t realise I was at risk of enslaving myself. More seriously, this Act is only applicable to businesses with a turnover above £36million. The UK Government evidently understands the need to keep red tape to a minimum for small and micro businesses; why can’t Nameless University get its head around this too?

Most galling of all, it will take me a couple of hours to jump through all their hoops. I’m debating whether to reply to the HoP asking who I should invoice for my time. What do you think? Is that a good way to make a point? Or is it a good way to shoot myself in the foot?

Working On A Second Edition

2nd-ednI’m working on the second edition of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide. This was my first full-length research methods book, published by Policy Press in 2012, and it’s ready for an update. I’ve never worked on a second edition before and it’s an interesting process. One of the problems I had with the first edition was that the typescript review was not at all helpful – just half a page of text with only one point that I ended up implementing. That was frustrating at the time. I wanted more input this time around, and my lovely publisher agreed that this would be a good idea.

First they asked for a couple of unstructured pre-proposal reviews from people currently using the book. One was half a page and the other was 2.5 pages, and they were both helpful, with a useful balance of praise and constructive criticism. Of course authors need praise like plants need water, but also it’s handy when revising work to know which aspects I don’t need to worry about.

My next job was to write a proposal for the second edition, saying why I thought there was a need for a new edition, and what the key features of the new edition would be. This went out to five reviewers for structured responses, which again were very helpful and balanced. All seven reviewers had lots of ideas – two full pages of bullet points when I compiled them into a Word document – to add to the ideas I’d already had myself, and some that readers and reviewers had contributed after the first edition came out.

The second edition will be around 10,000 words longer than the first, with a whole new chapter on research approaches and methodologies. I can’t quite believe that didn’t go in the first edition! One of the main criticisms I received from the reviewers, which was also made in some of the published reviews when the book came out, was that while the book has ‘evaluation’ in the title, there is only one mention of evaluation in the text. That is not in fact the case, though it is what the index says. In 2012, when the first edition came out, I didn’t know how to check an index. I have more idea now! Evaluation is threaded through the text: for example, in the introductory chapter it is referred to seven times, on pages 1, 5, 6 (three times), 9, and 11. This time I will be making sure that evaluation is fully covered in the index, and that it appears in the contents list – another mistake we made. This is partly because the contents list only includes the chapter titles, and it’s easy to miss out the word ‘evaluation’ at that level, because you can’t say ‘research and evaluation’ every single time or it becomes very wearing for your readers. (I was comforted to find that other books have the same problem, e.g. the new edition of  Michael Quinn Patton‘s Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods – though that book does have a full indexing of ‘evaluation’.)

I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to recapture the ‘voice’ of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners. The voice of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences was very different. But I started writing yesterday and it came straight back, as familiar as the voice of an old friend. I have a lot of work to do, but it’s work I love, and I’m excited about it, because I think I can make a good book better.

Finishing Your PhD: What You Need To Know

fyphd_teal2_flags2_multi_lc_rgbAs you know from my last post, the fifth e-book in my PhD Knowledge series is out. And so is the sixth! Phew!! I’m done!!!

I know, right? You wait ages for another e-book launch, then two come along at once! The sixth e-book is Finishing Your PhD: What You Need To Know. The final phase of doctoral study can be one of the most challenging phases, even though you’re almost there. This e-book has been vetted by expert beta readers, themselves in the final stages of the doctoral process.

While doctoral study doesn’t start (or finish) in line with the academic year, I find it satisfying that I managed to write and publish all the e-books in my PhD Knowledge series in time for the new semester. I’m also really happy that the first in the series, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, is – and always will be – free to download. (Pretty happy about the reviews, too.) One of the things that book is designed to do is to help people figure out whether or not doctoral study is the right thing for them to do. I loved my PhD years, but it’s a massive commitment, and it’s not right for everyone. I know people who have worked towards a doctorate for years before they realised it wasn’t what they should have been doing. If I can help just one person to avoid that kind of frustrating and painful experience, the book will have been worth writing.

That series was last year’s new venture, now I can turn my attention to this year’s new venture: supporting late-stage and post-doctoral students with their writing. More information about that in my next post!

Research Ethics For Your PhD

REFYPhD_purple_compasses_LC_RGB.jpgWhile I’ve been away on holiday (yes, lovely, thank you!) a lot has been happening on the writing front. To begin with, the fifth e-book in my PhD Knowledge series is out. For my new followers (hello, new followers!) this is a series of six short e-books, each around 10,000 words, for potential and actual doctoral students in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Although the titles mention PhDs, the books are also relevant for those doing professional doctorates such as EdDs, DBAs and so on. These e-books are designed to be readable by anyone with internet access – you don’t need a separate e-reader, you can download free software such as the Kindle App for your laptop, tablet, or phone. The first e-book in the series, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, is free to download, and the others are each around the same price as a take-away coffee. They are: Gathering Data For Your PhD, Analysing Data For Your PhD, and Writing Your PhD. I have produced them separately to keep them affordable, and so that doctoral students can have the information and advice they need, when they need it, rather than having to buy a whole big expensive book all at once.

The fifth in the series is Research Ethics For Your PhD: An Introduction. Whether or not you have to go through a formal process of ethical review, your examiners are likely to want to see evidence that you have at least considered ethical issues during your doctoral research. Research ethics is a large and complex topic. This e-book offers a straightforward introduction that will help you decide how far you want and need to engage with ethics during your doctoral study.

Some people think ethics is a dry, boring subject. I find it endlessly fascinating because, for me, it’s about people and the choices they make. I’m working on a full-length book about ethics and I’m determined that it won’t be dull and turgid; I want it to be lively and readable, even – if I can manage it – compelling. I lead on ethics for the UK and Ireland Social Research Association and, due to my interest in ethics, Dr Katy Vigurs asked me to collaborate on a journal article. Which has just been published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology! It’s called Participants’ productive disruption of a community photo-elicitation project: improvised methodologies in practice; there are some free downloads available and you might get one if you’re quick.

I have other writing news, as well, but that will have to wait for the next post. I hope you, too, have had a pleasant and productive summer, and I wish you all the best for the new academic year.