Sunday, September 15, 2013

Cargo Cult Administration

As Eli says in the little blurb at the left about his place of business
the administrators vary day-to-day between homicidal and delusional
Over at Science Blogs, Steinn Sigurðsson (he's Icelandic, accounts for the weird ð) has discovered Cargo Cult Administration.  Richard Feynman described Cargo Cult Science as without function or sense not quite getting the point but trying very hard to appear to.  In short the fussing that appears at Willard Tony's everyday.  According to Steinn
It is increasingly obvious that many administrative actions are really manifestations of Cargo Cult Administration. These administrations are following processes that only superficially resemble actual administrative actions: administrations talk of “best practices”, and “stakeholders”, and “consultation” and “transparency”, but do not act accordingly. 
Rather policies are put in place that are either irrelevant or inconsistent, if not actively counterproductive.
No consideration is made of whether the actual issue at hand is essentially comparable to whatever “best practice” is being applied was developed for, much less whether its implementation is effective. 
Stakeholder groups are assembled based on criteria other than whether those consulted actually have a stake in the issue, and others who clearly do have a stake are ignored and shut out. 
Consultation becomes a pro-forma process, either intended to reinforce preconceptions or to provide a distraction with the input received promptly discarded. 
Transparency is opaque, or a one-way mirror, and rarely leads to actual reception or adoption of feedback. It is forgotten that transparency is a means, not an end. 
Does this appear familiar to anybunny?  Now Steinn (one of the old sci.environment bunch) is a fairly temperate fellow, and when asked what set this off responded with a temperate
I can not do that 
Actually, to be precise - I may not do that at this stage without getting myself in serious real life trouble. 
At least I can not name topical names of realistic names of realistic examples that I had in mind without getting into serious real life trouble. 
Sometimes obliqueness is necessary.
Eli, Eli is, less, shall we say, cautious and would like to share with the bunnies two recent examples of Cargo Cult Administration at his place of instruction.

About two weeks ago, Eli was innocently sitting in the coffee room when a well tempered colleague fumed in.  Wassup, said the Bunny.  "The goddamn ''graduate school" is demanding that my student pass Human Subject Training before they admit her to candidacy."  Said colleague's work is computer based and there is debate as to where he would stand on a Turing Test, although Eli finds him quite nice.

That's nuts saith the Rabett, let us Google the forms, which he do, to find that the requirement is "if necessary".  Problem solved, but sadly no.  In the next couple of days Eli hears this crazy from a number of others.  Finally Eli starts climbing up the tree towards reliable information (after lots of years in any organization you learn who to ask and who to listen to).  Turns out that the Human Subjects IRB paperwork, was, let us say of a low volume and sorely lacking and they got dinged on inspection.  So, what to do?  Generate more paperwork, of course, and so it was decreed from on high . . . . .

Number two is something that Eli has been fighting for about six months.  Every now and then Emails from his Rabettness don't go through, but a curious message is sent
New ZixCorp secure email message from Rabett University Hospital 
Open Message

To view the secure message, click Open Message. 
The secure message expires on Apr 29, 2013 @ 04:17 PM (GMT). 
Do not reply to this notification message; this message was auto-generated by the sender's security system.  
If Eli and his colleagues are lucky, they get a WTF reply from the real addressee.  If not, which usually happens, they have discarded the message as pfishing.  About two days later Zix Corp sends you a letter saying that hey, your friend didn't pick up that very important message, but of course, then you have lost two days and you have to figure out how to get an Email to your friend telling her to pick up the other Email, which has already been terminated as pfishing, and if that gets trapped. . . .

What it is, of course is making Eli and his colleagues pay for other's screw ups.  People at Rabett University Hospital had been sending confidential information out in open Emails, and they got dinged for that, so we all now have this system which automatically scans all Emails for who knows what (and the Cargo Cult Administrators won't tell because that would be telling and someone might be able to beat the system) and, of course, Eli can't be allowed to turn off the system for his Email account because that would be another expensive bell and whistle, or it would let him beat the system.

As Ms. Rabett points out (compliance with privacy rules is her business) good secure Email systems always ask you whether an Email should be encoded, and keep an archive of those you say no to to check compliance.


Anonymous said...

"we all now have this system which automatically scans all Emails for who knows what (and the Cargo Cult Administrators won't tell because that would be telling and someone might be able to beat the system)"

Sometimes obliqueness is necessary.

Russell Seitz said...

I met a cargo cult administrator on Ambrym once. His first question was where did I come from ?

I said I had just sailed over from Epi. and he replied :

"Epi man, he putem wanfella leaf you path, you steppem leaf , you die finis.

It was easy to comply with his admonition, as Epi was by then upwind.

John said...

Administrators are often looking for an opportunity to start a new program or a new policy, which will look good on the administrator's resume. An innovative resume will allow the administrators to move on to another job, perhaps at another university.

A prudent administrator knows enough to skip town before anyone evaluates (or assesses) the new program or policy, because that would run the risk that the new program doesn't work.

It always looks better to start a new policy or institute or whatever, compared with continuing or improving an old policy that worked perfectly well.

Martin Vermeer said...

John, how very true. Story of our university.

Hank Roberts said...

"... [W]hen you talk to people about [abuses] in a place like this where this is the normal state of business people tend not to take them very seriously and move on from them...."
-- Snowden, quoted in the NYT, Opinionator -
September 15, 2013
The Banality of Systemic Evil

guthrie said...

This is noticeable in all workplaces which have fallen for the mangerialist fallacy, and which also encourage people to get promoted. If you want promotion, you need to look like you are doing something good and useful, whcih require re-arranging the deckchairs. After 2 or 3 years the deckchairs have started to rot, but by then you're away somewhere else.
Basically it ends any form of accountability.
Famous sufferers of it in the UK include the Police service, Universities etc.

Anyone seen the blog of David COlquhon? He blogged the destruction of the UCL Pharmacology department by managers at the university, although I'm having trouble finding the actual blog here's a good place to start:

As far as I'm concerned, in Universities, once you have managers running everything, their aims are divergent from those of professors and the wellbeing of the university as a whole, leading to the closure of departments for no good reason, reshuffles, greater numbers of paper pushers, duplication of effort and many meaningless phrases produced.

cRR Kampen said...

"the weird ð"
Not weird. ðhat's ðhe original 'th', weird Brits made it two letters. History is being annexed while one can't even turn around :)

EliRabett said...

OK, Brits are weird. Eli can accept that.

Anonymous said...

In my line of business it is cargo cult programming that is the silent killer. Instead of figuring out exactly what the problem is with a piece of errant code, and then trying to fix it, the cargo cult programmer just tries various unsuccessful random things for a few days, and then moves on to the next self-created problem leaving it for someone else to eventually fix their original mess.

My fav example of this is a race condition between two threads of execution where putting in just one line of code in one of the threads in an attempt to debug it got rid of the race condition. That's some catch, that Catch-22.

I suppose there are analogies to this in all walks of life and business. That Feynman guy was certainly no slouch.


Anonymous said...

Cargo cult administration at work:

This wasn't just one administrator, it was a system of perverse incentives to accomplish something irrelevant to the mission, i.e., destroying the village in order to save it. The more or less overt motive of the for-profit standardized testing movement is to destroy public education so it can be privatized. As metzomagic says, analogies abound.

Taylor B