Student group notes #4: navigating bureaucracy

August 2014

This is the fourth post in a series on lessons I learned while starting a student group almost from scratch.

Running a student group entails doing a lot of paperwork and getting through a lot of red tape. Especially at first, I had a hard time keeping track of everything, and frequently left things until the last minute (or later) when e.g. reserving space for events.

After spending one too many afternoons on tenterhooks waiting for the room reservation office to email me back, I finally cracked under the stress. For once I had actually paid attention to the booking deadlines and reserved our room a week in advance–but they still hadn’t confirmed two days beforehand. Come hell or high water, I decided, I was going to get my room reserved today. I put on my best starving-frantic-student-in-need face, thought up my best excuses, and marched over to the Science Center to demand satisfaction.

Instead of the hard-nosed, battle-ready bureaucrat I’d been imagining, I was greeted by a very pleasant gentleman named Ron. Ron had gotten some files out of order and then been swamped by requests, because it was the beginning of the semester and all the student groups wanted space. He hadn’t realized we’d been waiting so long, and was happy I’d stopped by to ask about it–especially since we had to have some back-and-forth about the logistics, which went much faster in person than over email.

As a software developer, I’ve been trained to think that if Harvard specifies an interface for students to communicate with institutions, that interface is a Holy Abstraction Barrier That Shall Not Be Crossed. But it turns out that bureaucratic abstractions leak even more than computational ones–the specified interfaces don’t really work very well. Combine that with the depersonalizing medium of email, where everyone is tempted to be rude or stop replying, and you have a recipe for unpleasant experiences.

I had the same experience again and again–room booking, financial forms, advertising space, and practically everything else we did went much more smoothly if we showed up in person when we got confused or had something complicated to do. I still try to avoid it when possible–it takes up people’s time and would probably get annoying if we did it excessively, and having to resolve issues in person is a red flag that we’re getting some other part of the process wrong. But if bureaucracy starts to drag on, showing up in person is an almost sure-fire way to speed things along.

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This series is great. Thanks for doing it.