University Bureaucracy: Research Facilitation or Compliance?
By Marianna Evola
Most people in the research community would describe my role in responsible conduct of research as one of compliance but I prefer to think of myself as a research facilitator. Yes, even I find amusement in the perceivable link to Orwellian language. That being said, I think the research facilitator label is accurate and more importantly, it is critical for me to internalize that my role is, in fact, one of facilitation. You see, internalizing that my primary role is to facilitate research enables me to become an active part of research productivity rather than an obstacle or hurdle that must be overcome and left behind. As such, I think it is critical for all compliance staff to view their role as facilitators and I will be utilizing the label throughout this article. Arguably, how one defines their role in the research community will impact how they interact with research personnel. If you define yourself as an obstacle, to research, researchers will avoid you. However, if you define yourself as a facilitator, researchers will seek you out for guidance and information, which is our ultimate goal.
I've previously written about the tension that exists between research faculty and the compliance divisions and how the tension arises because there is an inaccurate perception that our agendas conflict. However, I also think that tension arises because of communication differences. Some of those differences stem from an inaccurate self-identity of staff and their mistaken notion that their primary duty is to enforce compliance. In addition, I think that researchers often hold a limited awareness regarding the complexity of regulations associated with their research activities. As such, they often fail to recognize the expertise that facilitation staff contribute to research by promoting and enhancing research activities.
Daily, I find it amusing that my career has moved into the realm of compliance (facilitation) because I was never a cheerleader for any division of compliance or institutional bureaucracy. In fact, I often think of my current role as karma kicking in after I spent my first two careers pushing back against mandates and bureaucracy. My history of resenting bureaucracy began decades before I ever thought that I would join the academic world. My life before science was in the restaurant industry and ultimately, I was a professional chef. The much despised bureaucrat for the restaurant industry is the health inspector. Now, we did not hate the health inspector because they oversaw compliance with safety regulations associated with food production. In fact, we recognized the value of oversight because food safety regulations provided guidance for creating systems that protected our customers and us. And, of course, we were all patrons of restaurants as well as employees. And thus, we cared about food safety. The reason that we despised the health inspector was all about the timing of health inspections.
Most people realize that restaurants are full during the standard meal time. Meal time is when restaurants are engaged in a large volume of food service. And that is the time that the health inspector is most interested in the activities and behavior of restaurant workers. In other words, if personnel adhere to food safety regulations when they are extraordinarily busy, they can be trusted to follow the rules when business is slow. So, generally, the health inspector shows up at a restaurant to do an inspection during the busiest time of the day. The problem with this strategy is that a restaurant team's top priority is customer service and good teams take great pride in providing exceptional service. When things get busy, every restaurant employee is engaged in serving customers. But when the health inspector shows up, the kitchen manager has to drop everything to facilitate the inspector. Thus, during the busiest time of the workday, when the restaurant team needs every member, they lose a key member of the team. Losing the kitchen manager throws off the coordination of the team and negatively impacts customer service. Thus, every time the health inspector shows up, customer service is slowed. As such, the customers get mad and do not tip the wait staff well. The wait staff gets mad at the kitchen crew because food production is slow and it costs them tips. And the kitchen crew would be furious at the health inspector because the inspection removed a key member of the team which impaired food production. We understood the need for health inspections but the nature of an inspection impaired our productivity and that translated to loathing the health inspector.
That being said, on a few occasions, the health inspector revealed weaknesses in our systems or team. Sometimes the inspection revealed a piece of equipment that needed repair or replacement. Similarly, sometimes it revealed that members of the team would lose focus on food safety regulations when they became too busy and thus, they needed to be retrained or supported during the busy meal time. In other words, even though I still feel negative emotions when I think about health inspections, I am logically aware that they benefitted our team and product. And the best inspectors approached an inspection with the agenda to help us, not sanction us.
Similarly, university bureaucracy is perceived in the same manner. Faculty and student researchers are extraordinarily busy and every time they need to divert their attention to address compliance issues it slows their productivity. However, once researchers realize the educational and research benefits that can be provided by staff research facilitators, they begin to reach out and ask for assistance. When that happens, the research community is working as a team.
Why is there a perception that a barrier exists between researchers and research facilitation staff? One of the things that I failed to acknowledge in my anti-bureaucracy years (and sometimes still do) is the level of expertise that many facilitation staff have acquired and maintain to enable them to contribute to quality research. The mastery of information that is required/preferred for many facilitation roles takes years to acquire and maintain certification. The truth is, the regulatory world associated with research has become incredibly complex. Without the staff that facilitate compliance, faculty would be required to master a wide variety of regulations to enable them to maintain regulatory compliance. It would be an incredible waste of time for research faculty to spend time away from their research so that they could master the vast array of regulations. It makes a lot more sense to hire personnel that have mastery or that will develop the mastery of these complex regulations and then have them facilitate research so that our research personnel do not violate regulations. Fostering a strong research compliance staff in fact, facilitates research conducted by faculty and students because it minimizes the time that faculty are diverted from their research goals.
However, the inaccurate perception of a barrier is not only due to a limited perspective by researchers. Research facilitation staff need to define themselves as facilitators and not compliance personnel. That sounds easy, however defining yourself as a facilitator comes with a need to be proactive so that you can actively identify weaknesses in the research community and develop strategies to educate and address those weaknesses. In other words, your role is not limited to making sure that other people do required work. The role of a facilitator is more demanding in that you are active in creating systems that enable researchers to enhance their knowledge, maximize their research productivity and ultimately meet compliance standards. Your role is not limited to making sure others comply, rather your role is to actively promote and enhance research productivity.
One of the seemingly easiest things that staff can address is to develop strong communication skills. Strong communication skills will enable them to quickly convey information to researchers so that researchers become informed with little cost of time or effort. Like I stated above, the regulations associated with many areas of compliance are complex and facilitation staff spend years mastering those regulations. As such, when asked about regulations, they try and convey the complexity of the regulations and mistakenly fall back on reciting regulations to faculty and students. This strategy of communication may be an accurate presentation of the facts, but it is not strong communication. When faculty and students contact you for clarification of regulations, they are looking for clear but concise information. They are looking to your expertise to save them the time of reading and mastering the regulations by themselves. If you cannot save them time, or if you give them a list of references to read themselves, you are not facilitating their mastery of information. Think about it as poor instructors that stand in front of the class and read from the textbook. We have all had them. And if you were like me, after a couple of weeks you stopped attending class because you could save time just reading the textbook on your own. Really good instructors organize and simplify material so that it is easily absorbed by students.
As such, the role of research facilitator would be to convey complex regulations in a manner that is easily absorbed by faculty and student researchers. To do so, consider the questions that you address regularly. All facilitation staff are aware of issues and questions that arise regularly. Develop scripts that will answer those questions accurately and concisely. Accuracy is important because you don't want to convey wrong or incomplete information in a desire to be brief. And brevity is critical because your expertise is being sought out so that you can save researchers time and confusion. Once you have developed a script that you think works, try it out on colleagues. Ask them to repeat the information back to you so that you can test your script for accuracy and its ability to easily convey information. Remember, if researchers had the time and interest to develop mastery of all the regulations associated with research, there would be no need of your position. They don't want to master all the regulations, they want you to answer their question.
Researchers should learn to reach out to staff for guidance and input. Students should be encouraged to contact facilitation staff for education and guidance. Don't underestimate the expertise that research facilitation staff have to share with researchers. Also, realize that although staff may have spent years mastering the regulations that fall under their arena of expertise, often they did not spend years learning to communicate or teach that information. As described above, often their desire to convey thorough information causes them to fall back on reciting regulations when asked questions. Trust me, I work with these folks every day, they really want to be of assistance to researchers. Be patient and if the communication is too difficult, ask if there is someone else in that office that can assist you.
Researchers and research facilitators need to remember that we have the same goals. We all want to enhance research productivity. Faculty want to focus on their research, not the plethora of regulatory issues associated with their research. Research facilitation staff work hard to make sure that research complies with regulations to protect the careers of faculty and student researchers. Furthermore, they want to utilize their expertise to enhance the quality and quantity of research productivity. We are two parts of the same team.
Marianne Evola is the director of the Human Research Protection Program in the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.