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Digital bureaucracy August 9, 2013

Posted by apetrov in Near Physics.

This post is about how digital technology of the 21st century “helps” professors (well, at least, this professor) to spend his time doing very important paper submission. Except for the fact that “paper” here refers to the receipts of the expenses that were incurred attending professional conferences. Sorry in advance for the rant that follows.

As an introduction, let me tell you how the procedure used to work at our University. Before going to a conference I had to “encumber” (“reserve”) expenses that I planed to incur – filling out one paper form, no receipts. After return from the conference, I would fill out the same form and attach receipts. Our secretary would then type the form up nicely and submit it for reimbursement. It would normally take weeks to get reimbursed, but timewise I’d spend only about 10-15 min doing the whole procedure. Including a nice cover letter to the said secretary summarizing the details and thanking her for her job. 15 min.

Enter digital age! And the age of layoffs. With great fanfare, the university rolled out a new digital system in 2012 — no paper (save the trees!), no secretary involvement (remember the age of layoffs?), maybe even quick turn-around, yahoo!!! Even MIT does not have such a system! Take that, MIT!

Except for now I have to first file the request, complete with all receipts and a conference agenda. No problem, right? So it takes about 20 min to collect all receipts, turn them into pdf files and fill out a bunch of forms electronically. Now, upon return you do the same thing. Except for now you have to

– digitize the receipts that were not digital originally (like highway tolls or gas),enter those receipts separately based on the day when the charge occurred,

– provide proof that you paid for your hotels with your own credit card — not the university one (no problem of getting the pdf file from your credit card company, blacking out your personal details and submitting, attaching it electronically to the request). Also, you’d need to itemize your hotel stay — enter how much it was per day + taxes, etc.

– you have to once again attach the same files with conference agenda.

And, of course, you have to state the business purpose of all of your lunches and dinners (not to die of hunger during the conference, I suppose?) separately for each day of the conference.

Of course, all of this is not a problem. It only takes 30-40 min to do all of this. If you know how.  So, if my math is correct (and your expense report is not returned back — so you have to fix your problems and resubmit), the whole procedure takes about 20 min+40 min = 1 hour (60 min – remember 15 min???).  Moreover, no secretary involvement, remember? I do it all myself, so the said secretary is fired.

So here is some interesting math. it takes, on average, 4 times longer for me to file the digital reports. I know now why MIT does not have such a system. I’ll take that back, MIT…. Questions remain, though. Do faculty have to do all of those reports on their own time or during the time when they are supposed to do research or write grant applications or talk to students? Does the university save money on that (hint: secretary’s salary is on average less than that of a faculty)?

So here you have it. Does it kill me to do all those things? Of course not. As it wouldn’t kill me to mop the floor in the corridor near my office or go to a supply store to buy chalk to teach my class. Hey, here is an idea for new cost-cutting measures!


1. Sredharan R Nair - August 26, 2013

try the Expensify app, helps with claims….easy to use..

2. Eva Zeitgeist - September 1, 2013

I feel your pain and adhere to you sensibilities. Though my life too is draining from the perceived efficient yet inefficiencient cost cutting economic measures for infinite growth to be maximized, it distresses me additionally when I recently spoke to a medical doctor. I was at an urgent care when a doctor explained that what was a routine 5 minute administrative process is now minimally a half an hour process that only he can perform, he quiried where is the efficiency when it comes to patient care. Clearly humanities technology is moving in the right direction but its application to our overall social well being is not. The bio-social-economic system as it is currently operating has detached itself from what was once IRS primary focus, to care for ourselves and each other.

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