8 min read

why do I have to do so much paperwork?

The unbearable heaviness of admin.

I read Marit Kapla's book Osebol last week. Osebol is a village in the Swedish backwoods. Kapla grew up there, but left for Gothenburg. A few years ago, she returned to Osebol to interview every resident. The book is a collection of these interviews presented in verse. They tell a story of a village that has been cast aside by globalisation; the jobs have gone and the young people have gone with them.

Here's part of Kapla's interview with a carer:

"I've been working there [at the care home] for many years.

It suits me.

But there's a lot of admin
which has become absolutely central.

Everything has to be written up
and entered on the computer.

It would be nice, it really would,
to be told now and again
Put all that to one side
and just sit down with the old people."

"Everything has to be written up". This is fast becoming a general rule in the world of work: every task completed in the real world, every actual output, must have a corresponding existence in the digital world.

My interviewees also complain about this. e.g., a former fast food restaurant manager:

I left. It took a great load off my mind. The way it was going...

I'd been there for 20 odd years and the changes that they were bringing in - a lot of documentation.

Everything has to be written down. Everything has to be loaded onto the screen.

Or a police officer describing the bag in the boot of her patrol car:

... in my suitcase, I'd have all my tickets for traffic, I would have all my DV books, all my statement paperwork, anything to do with terminology and stuff like that, victim statement booklets.

Everything was in there. Everything you can possibly imagine was in there. That bag was heavy.

And you've got that bag full of paperwork, and when you go back into the police station, you've got to type it all up... The paperwork is so much that it takes probably 70% of your time as a police officer.

If you speak to teachers and those that work in the NHS, you'll hear the same things.

The act of recording this information is making people unhappy - so unhappy, in fact, that they are quitting their jobs. And yet workers are asked to record more and more information, to describe their actual outputs in ever greater detail. What gives?

why are we making ourselves do so much paperwork?

Because (i) we can, (ii) we have to, and (iii) we want to.

because we can

It is easier than ever before to record and store information about our actual outputs. This situation has been brought about by a succession of miracles:

  • universal adult literacy allows all workers to record information about their actual outputs;
  • near universal access to computers allows workers to record this output information in a medium that can be easily stored, searched, and shared;
  • the spread of fast internet access and practically limitless cloud-based storage means that there is no check on the recording, storage, and sharing of the gathered information;

Bureaucracy has overflowed its banks. It is no longer limited to a professional class of administrators and middle managers. Instead, the technological miracles of the last two decades allow each worker to be responsible for collecting and archiving information about their own outputs. A police officer used to finish her patrol, get changed, and head home. Now that officer finishes her patrol, heads to her desk, and begins her second job as a police administrator. But when did we ask for this to happen?

A comparison with the USSR, the archetypal bureaucratic state, reveals the creeping power of this bureaucratic revolution. At the moment of the USSR's dissolution, its seventeen state archives contained 65 million files resting on c.300 miles of shelving (the distance from London to Belfast). When these archives opened, historians despaired, thinking that they would never work their way through this mass of information.

By today's file-production figures, 65 million is nothing, a will-o'-the-wisp.

In 2015, 73 million PDFs were saved each day on Google Drive and Gmail alone. It is reasonable to assume that, each month, trillions of text-based files are now being created and stored by companies and states. It is in this virtual heap that you will find the millions of documents created by (and loathed by) carers, police officers, teachers, and fast food managers.

because we have to

Rules are sticky things. Easier to introduce than remove, they tend to accumulate over time. You can see this accumulation in the regulations that govern our economies and lives. For instance, since its birth the EEC/EU has taken more than 100,000 legislative acts (directives, regulations, and decisions). Some involve the amendment or curtailing of existing legislation, the vast majority do not.

Regulation piles up not just because that's what it tends to do, but also because that's we want it to do. Since the 1970s, social democracy and public ownership have been in retreat at the demand of electorates. The state has given up many of the levers that it once used to control the economy and the environment. It can no longer, for instance, build neighbourhoods or define the working conditions and pay of tens of millions of public sector workers.

But despite their rejection of social democracy, electorates still want to retain many of the benefits that social democracy gave them - better working conditions and a better lived environment. And so, without other levers to pull, the state is left to achieve the electorate's wishes by the proliferation of rules and the defining of standards.

These changes are captured by the categories that academics use to describe our world; they talk about Regulatory Capitalism and the Regulatory State.

This regulatory mille-feuille affects workers. A well-run organisation will want to comply with the regulations that govern its activity - it will not want to act unlawfully. But compliance by itself is not enough. The organisation must be able to prove its compliance should it be challenged, and so the organisation's compliance must be documented.

Who records the information and data to document this compliance? Who does the regulatory grunt work? It is, of course, the fast food manager, the carer, the teacher, and the police officer. And, as we have heard, this paperwork seems to be one of the worst parts of their jobs.

We associate deregulation so tightly with lying Telegraph journalists and weird Ayn Rand types that we close our minds to the ways in which it might emancipate workers. Yes, deregulation carries the risk of harm - i.e. the return of the harm that the regulation was introduced to cure. But the regulatory burdens placed upon workers, or at least the ways in which organisations shift the burden of regulatory compliance onto workers, also cause harm: these burdens make workers bloody miserable.

Those on the left recognise such misery, but they see it as a matter of resources: more teachers and police officers means less misery. That is true, but we shouldn't forget that paperwork and admin are mischevious gases, which expand to fill the spaces given to them. More resources must come with less reporting.

because we want to

Most of the time we do not record and report information about our actual output because we are required to by law. We do it because the organisation we work for requires us to. Such recording is, then, a matter of choice on the part of those that set the rules within organisations.

Imagine a typical UK care home company. It is typical in that it runs a number of homes, and that it is owned by a private equity firm.

Why would the care home executives that run this company make their staff take notes of every interaction with a patient?

(1) Because they want to avoid being sued: if the staff record their visits, then the care home company has evidence that it can use to fend off any allegations of negligence.

(2) Because it limits staff autonomy: in an industry with high staff turnover and low pay, the executives are unlikely to trust their staff. And so the system is designed to limit mistakes, with rules about what carers should do during their visits, and strict reporting requirements to make sure that the carers have kept to those rules.

(3) Because the executives (and the team from the private equity house) want to know what is going on in their company: with hundreds of staff, the company is too large for the executives to see for themselves how well the staff work and where productivity can be increased. An information-gathering and reporting system is required. Having the staff describe each visit gives you the best data possible about events on the ground.

(4) Because this paperwork is the institutional memory of the company: it acts as a handover document for the revolving door of carers. It allows healthcare professionals to track the condition of each patient.

(5) Because it is useful for the carers to reflect on their work.(I'm not sure this argument holds water. No-one reflects well when being slowly crushed by paperwork.)

(6) Because the care homes are required to hit certain targets to be eligible for public money: these detailed care notes allow the care homes to evidence the fact that they are hitting the targets. (I should note here that this target-based commissioning system also exists across parts of the NHS. Services are awarded funding based on the quality of their data reporting. In turn, fewer services are provided to patients, because health professionals have to spend so much time describing their outputs in ways that are palatable to the NHS commissioning group).

The purpose of a care home is to provide care to those unable to care properly for themselves. A system that requires carers to take copious notes so clearly fails to achieve that purpose. When a carer is spending much of their time taking notes, they are not spending that time caring. That is the long and short of it.

The decision of executives to adopt such a policy can only be explained by the fact their primary loyalty is to the organisation. And the benefits of the note-taking mostly accrue to the organisation and not to the patient or the carer. The organisation gets information that it can use to protect itself from litigation, to make decisions, and to give the appearance of output for interested parties (e.g., shareholders, relatives of the patients, potential customers, private equity owners, local authority & NHS commissioning groups).

The organisation may well use that information to make productivity improvements, but such improvements are nothing compared to the improvements that would result from freeing staff from administrative suffocation.

getting rid of paperwork

If I were a care home executive, I would not be brave enough to reduce the reporting requirements of my care staff.

My lawyers would tell me not to - it would leave you exposed to litigation risk. My management consultants would tell me not to - you would be throwing away your best data. You cannot make good decisions without that data. My private equity patrons and the board would tell me not to - do what the lawyers and management consultants tell you!

If my duty is to the company, and the people who purport to be experts tell me that reducing the reporting requirements will harm the company, then I would not take that risk.

These defensive instincts repeat across the public and private sector. They are an understandable response to the greater awareness of risk that has accompanied the arrival of the information age, with its travelling bands of lawyers and management consultants.

But just because instincts are understandable, that does not make them right: they lead managers at every level of the hierarchy to place too great an emphasis on record keeping and the production of data. It is then their subordinates that have to spend scarce time creating those highly-detailed records. This process hollows out services by reducing the autonomy and motivation of the people that actually provide the services that we all use. Without autonomy and motivation, the thumbscrews of stress are tightened, and workers - from teachers and police officers to health professionals and fast food managers - edge closer to giving it all up.

There are two routes out of this. The first is to hope that technology can allow workers to focus on their actual output, rather than their bureaucratic output. For example, body cameras for all, perfect transcription technology, or cameras in care homes that can record vital signs without staff having to measure them.

The second way out is for us to reduce the amount of information that we collect about work. This means that we must embrace a certain variety and uncertainty of performance. Without the helicopter parenting of excessive record keeping, some malpractice and negligence will go unnoticed. But, when it is discovered, perhaps we should hold off from demanding wholesale reform, with its new systems of monitoring and control. Instead, we should tolerate these failings as a necessary price for freeing workers and public servants to do the work that they signed up to do. The meaningful work, not the bureaucratic work.

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