This article is more than 2 years old

It is the quality of the bureaucracy, not the quantity, which needs addressing

James Coe argues that we need to focus on the quality of our bureaucracies and that current research reviews need to not get bogged down in discussions of cost and scale
This article is more than 2 years old

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

Bureaucracies are a good thing. When they work effectively they prevent the maladministration of public services, they ensure funding is spent correctly, and they put in place a common set of rules we can all abide by.

Bureaucracy is the grand ambition of the regulation of collective goods to achieve mutually beneficial aims. Think of universities without the administration of timetables, exams, or student support. The fire service without risk assessment, safety training, or PPE distribution. The NHS without systems to prioritise patients, spending, or the administration of treatments. Bureaucracy is not boring. It is the institutional guardrail which steers a functioning society.

The discussion on bureaucracies in all their guises is much more tedious than bureaucracies themselves. Every week there are anodyne discussions about whether there is too much bureaucracy. The last couple of weeks have been a treat in this regard. The Department for Education is modelling up to a 40 per cent reduction in staff. The opaquely funded Tax Payers Alliance is telling the government how to spend public money in a call for “serious efforts to trim Britain’s bloated bureaucracy.” And the BMA and The Daily Telegraph have both used Policy Exchange’s report into future of specialised services within integrated care to lament a growing spend on what the BMA term “management and red tape.” Indeed, the Office for Students announced a review of bureaucracy only three years into its existence.

The reason these debates are unhelpful is nobody wants bureaucracy for the sake of it. Nobody wants more meetings than strictly necessary, processes for process sake are needless, and tripping people over hurdles of regulation, reporting, and accountability, which add no public value is clearly an enormous waste of time and effort. In spite of all this, and I write this as a professional bureaucrat, the question of whether there is too much bureaucracy is not nearly as interesting as whether there is good bureaucracy. The function of regulation, reporting, and administration, is a collective concern squeezed out by sexier debates on cost and size.

Reviews clues

In the higher education world this is important because the key to a functioning research ecosystem isn’t only about who runs it but how it is run. To a lesser or greater extent, the ongoing and coterminous reviews of the research landscape are concerned with how to balance the collective goods of research against the individual activities of research institutes and researchers. In short, what is the best form of research bureaucracy? Vexed with this question there is:

  • The Review of Research Bureaucracy by Adam Tickell Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham. This review is aimed at producing a speedier research bureaucracy which preserves the qualities of the current system.
  • The UKRI sponsored review into the role of metrics in research management and assessment led by Elizabeth Gadd, Stephen Curry, and James Wilsdon.
  • The Review of Research and Innovation Landscape led by Paul Nurse charged with reviewing the policy and funding context in which research, development, and innovation organisations are operating.
  • And the review of UKRI led by David Grant which is looking at whether UKRI is achieving its objectives and whether it is aligned with the UK government’s ambitions for the future of research and innovation.

There is of course an irony in talking about bureaucracy while there are four simultaneous large-scale research reviews taking place. These reports are in various stages of fermentation with the Tickell review most public-facing – its interim report has been covered on this site. In the spirit of academic enquiry, it would be inappropriate to draw conclusions before the ink is dry on these reports but there are obvious challenges to be grappled with.

Tilting a research landscape toward government objectives through shifting the levers of funding, policy, and measurement, is really hard. This is because research is both directed and spontaneous. Putting slicker administration into international collaboration, or investing in the strengths in the research roadmap, or incentivising UKRI to better align to government activity, will of course shift the research landscape. However, it cannot change that research is a people’s game and people are already in the system with their expertise, existing relationships, funds, international collaborators, and things they are interested in that might not fit with government ambitions. The need for four simultaneous reviews speaks to the complexity of an ever-changing system populated with tens of thousands of researchers.

Quality over quantity

Fundamentally, in all of these reviews the question should not be the size of bureaucracy but the best version of it. Collectively, these reviews as they are released sometime around the summer will start to pick apart what that bureaucracy can be. Here are four principles that the reviews should aspire to.

Firstly, the reviews should be honest that there are trade-offs in funding excellence wherever it may be and the government’s levelling up agenda. Funding latent research capacity is not the same as funding existing work.

The second is that a competitive funding environment may not be the most equal funding environment so bureaucratic safeguards may be necessary to achieve wider equality, culture, or distributive objectives.

Thirdly, a dual-track funding system means that there will always be tension between research autonomy and directed activity. The more interesting debate is the level of cash and administrative investment in each activity.

And finally, that the reviews can only be successful if they are working toward a common goal; broadly what is collectively deemed valuable in research and how should that be measured; in turn what is the best way to fund that activity, and what is then the appropriate bureaucracy to regulate that system.

A better bureaucracy is possible regardless of how much or little we have of it.

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