/Dear Bureaucrat, how can I work with and around my agency’s useless computer system?

Dear Bureaucrat, how can I work with and around my agency’s useless computer system?

My agency uses an online system for responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, but the system is useless. Half the people who need to work on a request don’t have passwords for the system, so I need to constantly email and phone them about what they need to do. There are review and approval steps that my agency requires, but aren’t part of the workflow in the system, so I have to remember who needs to see what, whether they’ve responded, etc. Every step I have to do that the system pretends doesn’t exist is another chance for errors to creep in, which I get blamed for. I’ve talked to IT about matching the system to what we actually need to do, but they say the development contract ended years ago, so there’s no budget for changes. What can I do?

Signed, Charlie “Modern Times” C.

Occasionally an agency is forced to admit that a system development project failed. But your problem is more common — the system is bought, paid for and officially a successful implementation. It just doesn’t do what the workers need to get their jobs done.

The fix is that workers create our own solutions to do what the official system doesn’t. Spreadsheets are the most common form, but people also use templates, macros, web-based file sharing services, etc. IT departments call this “shadow IT” and point to the security risks. I prefer the term “cuff system,” which goes back to when bookkeepers would write a number on their shirt cuff to remember a figure that wasn’t in the official ledger. As to security, the data breaches that have made headlines were from official enterprise systems. Cuff systems done properly can beat that record.

Look for ways to automate the tasks in your job that the official IT system ignores. You could start by making a checklist in a spreadsheet or word-processing document, that lays out each step you need to perform when a new FOIA request gets assigned to you. Add hyperlinks to each step that open the files you will need with a single click — spreadsheets you need to record data in, address lists of people who should receive that step’s email, boilerplate text for notices you need to send, etc.

Make templates or forms for any type of document, spreadsheet or email that you need to create repeatedly. It can be as simple as a document of standard language that you cut and paste into emails as needed, or you can automate more using the template and form features in your spreadsheet, word-processing and email applications.

You can set up your spreadsheets to alert you to problems automatically. For example, use conditional formatting to automatically make a deadline date turn to bold red when today’s date is within a week of it. Of all the cuff system techniques, the one that saves me the most time is using conditional formatting and lookup functions to make spreadsheets check for errors and automatically summarize data into the tables I need to present.

If your work includes getting multiple people’s input on a draft, then try getting them all to comment and edit on a shared copy, rather than you needing to email multiple versions among all the participants. Google Docs does this automatically, and you can do it in Microsoft Word if all the participants have access to a shared drive. The technology is easy, but the social engineering may be harder, since it depends on the participants being willing to change how they work.

If you are more technically ambitious, you can create macros that perform complex tasks with one click; for example, search a spreadsheet for duplicate rows and delete the duplicates. Microsoft Word and Excel, and Google Sheets (but not Google Docs) let you record a task as you do it and then save it as a macro, so you don’t need to learn coding. If you are willing to learn a macro programming language — Microsoft VBA or Google Apps Script — then you can create more powerful automation.

Here are some cautions for keeping your cuff system out of trouble. First, don’t call it a system, an application, or a program. Any of those names could be used to argue that your automation is subject to policies that require approval for IT systems. Instead, call your creations what they are: spreadsheets, documents, templates, etc. Nobody needs approval to create a spreadsheet.

Second, don’t use hardware, software or web-based services that your agency hasn’t provided. You can build plenty of automation within whatever apps your agency uses for spreadsheets, documents, email and so on. You might have to ask around to find tools that your agency provides to some people but not everyone, such as web-based file sharing sites. If you try to install unapproved software or send information to unapproved web services, then your agency’s network may block it, or you may trigger a complaint from your IT security staff.

Finally, expect your homebrew automation to make your work faster, more accurate, and less tedious. But don’t expect your boss to reward you for creating it. Experiments by Allen et. al. found that participants recommended a smaller bonus for a hypothetical employee when they were told he used a self-developed information system that was not approved by the IT department. This held even when the participants were told the employee’s outcomes were better than required. So it’s best to let the improved speed and accuracy of your work speak for itself, and keep quiet about how you accomplished it.

Dear Bureaucrat is a new feature on Federal Times, providing advice for people who work in the public sector and the opportunity for the federal workforce to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.

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