In praise of administration

By Helen Sullivan

June 19, 2017

A businesswoman is seated at a desk in an office and is looking through a stack of paperwork. Horizontally framed shot.

No one it seems loves or even likes administration. Governments get elected promising to cut waste, which is often code for administration. Global advisory organisations offer advice on how to reduce the administrative burden and so reduce costs to the taxpayer or consumer. Corporations strive for cost minimisation through delaying administration and deploying technology to removed administrative functions or roles. In universities there is a preferred ratio of academic to administrative staff, and many institutions are now engaged in reform programs to achieve that ratio.

Administration is approached as something akin to an invasive species; once it gets hold there is no stopping it and before you know it the organisation is bloated with penpushers who exist to create work for each other. Organisations must be vigilant in the face of such threats, alert to the risks of a burgeoning administration and ready to strike to counter its creep. The ideal organisation is one without administration, or more accurately without administrators.

But is that really nirvana? I suggest not.

Rather I want to propose that we revise our view of administration and administrators and determine to treat them as essential components in any high performing organisation.

To be clear I am talking specifically about public organisations and those in the not for profit sectors, though I imagine many of my arguments would also be applicable in the private sector. I am also focused on those roles that are genuinely administrative, rather than those that might fall under the heading of ‘public administration’ but are really about policy design and development.

“Not everyone wants a career pathway but is content to do what they do to the best of their ability.”

I am concerned with those whose job it is to make the rest of the organisation work in such a way that clients, visitors, students and even other employees don’t notice but can rely on.

These administrators take a variety of forms from receptionists to finance and budget officers. They may be public facing or not. Their salaries will vary depending on the level of responsibility they have and the skill level they need. But they are all concerned with the business of efficient and effective administration.

For whatever reason we decided that these skills and roles were less valuable than we had previously thought. So across a range of sectors we have engaged in programs of reform that have reduced their numbers. The resulting savings can then be invested in more streamlined administration, including call centres, web enabled services, or in employing more of those people who add real value. In universities this is academics.

What happens when the administrators are gone

It sounds terrific – who wouldn’t want more teachers teaching and researchers researching?

Except that for every administrative task that is deleted or warehoused, others are given over to the academics to perform themselves. There may not be anything necessarily wrong with this (though of course that’s not always the case), processes are streamlined and put on-line. But universities, like other public organisations, tend to be risk averse in matters of regulation and governance and so streamlined systems can become systems in which there are multiple lines of approval required and/or lots of sources of evidence in case of ‘audit’. So very clever academics can find themselves completely foxed by being required to fill in their own credit card approvals, travel requests, budgeting, etc. using a system designed to meet the audit requirements of the organisation rather than the needs and skills of the user.

What exactly is the value of releasing resources to employ more academics if the workloads of those academics are to be increasingly focused on doing their own administration? Not more or better teaching or research.

By devaluing administration and assuming that new systems will empower professionals of any stripe to become self-sufficient in administration, we risk failing to achieve our goals of higher quality and greater efficiency. Far better it seems to me is to value different kinds of administration and administrators appropriately, acknowledge that not everyone wants a career pathway but is content to do what they do to the best of their ability. This will not preclude improvements or changes over time but invest those improvements in a cadre of people who administer our public services, universities, charities and corporations, take pride in that and are valued for it.

Professor Helen Sullivan is Director of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.

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Long distance flyer
Long distance flyer
4 years ago

In general I would have agreed with this-but my experience with what was then cited widely as the top Operational research Unit in the world (Field Investigation Group, National Coal Board UK). This impressive group reported directly to the Board when the NCB had 500,000 employees and was it was an incredibly selective group in terms of hiring and also gave an amazing degree of delegation to the young staff..singularly effective. I learned a very great deal very fast.. and they had one admin officer for the 72 of us..when ever the arguments put forward above are made, I hark back to that experience…and have thought deeply abuot why and how it worked so well

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