Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Lifeblood of Bureaucracy

I work for a six-hundred or so employee human service agency. Organized as a not-for-profit, it suckles from the teat of public funding. The price of this lese majesty is that we must verify the allowable usage of those funds. This is right and just; there is fraud inherent in the system, and the more money changing hands, the greater the opportunity to bleed off a little bit here, a little bit there, and soon we're talking about real money.

Too often, though, the requisite oversight takes on a life of its own, with auditors assuming the role of overseers, demanding that hoops and hurdles be jumped, parsing the regulations with a razor's-edge interpretation rather than by the intent, declaring that there is no difference between error and fraud. Let us not at this time consider whether the funding provided was sufficient to support the paper verification in the first place, or whether there may be a political agenda to cripple public institutions via a thousand wounds.

It is my observation that too many agencies are complicit in complicating the documentation and thereby present easy targets to the auditors; they may be good at assisting their clientele, but they are clumsy at designing the forms and systems necessary to account for the expenditures and services. These are often prescribed by administrators thoroughly versed in the language of the regulations, but who have little actual experience in providing and documenting the services with which their personnel are charged. There is a perverse midset that seems to assume, since one piece of paper is required, three must be superior. This persepective is also convenient for management; checklists and reports substitute for supervision and training.

I would suggest that it is important to look at the role of documentation in the abstract, unconnected with pet projects or systemic paranoia (both of which, I believe, lead to excessive and redundant paperwork requirements) that seems to assume, if we just produce enought reports, the TERRIBLE THING or fear du jour can be avoided (or, at least, someone else can take the blame). We should define what the documentation is for, what it can do, and how it is best done. While I'm sure that entire schools of system analysts and time management mavens have studied this in superior detail, following are my considerations; after all, isn't it MY blog??

1) The purpose of a document is to communicate specific billing-related information and to compile information necessary to provide services.

2) Minimal, and specific, documents speed the transmission of accurate information.

3) Clumsy and excessive documentary requirements will always interfere with the provision of services.

4) Well-formatted documents use logical groupings of information to present simple forms. This makes it easier to fill in, complete, and then retrieve information.

5) Minor repetitions in a form can be useful to highlight critical information and direct the reader to a more comprehensive source of information. Excessive repetition and lengthy explanations distract from the main points.

6) No document, however formatted, can insure accuracy, safety, and security. Only ongoing training in professional performance and procedures, with consistent supervision, corrective feedback, and support, can provide the most effective services and their documentation.

7) Forms and formats should be developed by a consensus of the people who use them, subject to administrative oversight to insure compliance specifically with regulation.

After thirty-odd years as a service provider I don't think that these are particularly complex lessons to have learned or to incorporate into our systems of documentation.

Documentation (or "paperwork," for the non-digital) is an unfortunate necessity, like formalized laws and taxes. It is necessary to keep the exchange of information and finances going between the units and and levels of our society and body politic. It is a living, though somewhat amorphous entity, and it is necessary to routinely prune, revise, and apply judiscious upgrades. We all know what the neglect of our gardens leads to -- so much more so with the cultivation of bureaucracy!

And a final admonition to auditors everywhere -- when you review a file, return it to the state in which you found it!!!


At 4:14 AM, Blogger Roger Owen Green said...

So THAT'S what you do!


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