Strategic Inefficiency

In this post I describe a problem I have given a name “strategic inefficiency.” That name came to mind as I was listening to people’s experiences of making formal complaints. I was hearing accounts of unexplained and excruciating delays; of confidential folders being sent to the wrong person or being posted with incomplete addresses; of whole complaint files mysteriously disappearing; of meetings that were not properly minuted or that were assembled haphazardly in contradiction with policy and procedure. These scenes of institutional disarray were familiar to me as an academic who had worked at universities for over twenty years (1). I had even worked at one university that had seemed almost proud of its inefficiency, an inefficiency I am tempted to call critical inefficiency, an inefficiency that was assumed to be critical by virtue of an implied refusal of an injunction to be efficient (2).  But I was also hearing something else beyond the mess or in the mess. I was listening to the sound of machinery: the clunk, clunk that was telling me that inefficiency is not just about the failure of things to work properly but can be how things are working. In other words, I began to realise that inefficiency was not just about errors in an operating system; errors can be an operating system.

I had wondered about the work of inefficiency before; how inefficiency could be understood as an achievement. One time during my first year as a lecturer I was in the departmental office. An administrator was trying to find someone to mark a course. I was curious. I asked why Professor X was not marking the course given he was the course leader. She gave me a certain kind of look; a look that said that’s a long story but I can’t tell you it. Later I talked to another academic. She told me that everyone knows that Professor X cannot be relied upon to mark his own courses – if you gave him marking it would not be done. She told me how one time a whole set of exam scripts was found behind his chair. I came to learn over subsequent years that Professor X was rarely given administrative work: even if he was named Director of such-and-such he did not actually do the work (though being Director still counted as part of his work-load). When administrators participated in distributing Professor X’s work to other staff (always more junior, usually women) it was not because they thought Professor X was special or wise or important. It was because they cared about the students and they did not want the students to suffer the consequences. Professor X was however still benefiting from his inefficiency; he was being saved from doing certain kinds of work, the administrative work we can describe as institutional house work. Having his time freed from that work meant more time to the work that was more valued; time for research.

This is one version of strategic inefficiency: how some are relieved from doing the work that would slow their progression. And, of course, others then inherit that work. That some people end up being given more administrative work because they are more efficient might seem so obvious that it does not need to be said. The obvious is not always obvious to those who benefit from a system; the obvious always needs to be said. We need to learn from how inefficiency is rewarded and how that rewarding is a mechanism for reproducing hierarchies: it is about who does what; about who is saved from doing what. In academic career terms, efficiency can be understood as a penalty: you are slowed down by what you are asked to pick up.

Another time many years later, I was a visitor at an elite university. I was sitting at the back of a lecture theatre. It was a grand room: there were portraits on the wall; old white men in gowns; same old, same old. I was watching someone fiddle with a projector. It just would not work. And something struck me: how organisations that are often so profoundly inefficient at some things can be rather remarkably efficient at others. I was thinking about how difficult it was at this university to get quite basic tasks done: to get the technology to work; a lecture theatre heated, a syllabus circulated in advance. And I was noticing how those portraits on the wall and those who were gathered at the meeting tables, the dining tables, all kinds of tables, seemed to reflect each other rather smoothly, the narrowness of an assembly can be its own achievement, a sign that some systems are working; how those whom are selected keep just happening to meet the requirements of vacancies that need to be filled. Even when a projector fails, a history can still be screened. In other words, I was struck by how the university seemed so efficient when it came to reproducing itself or when it came to reproducing who it was for.

The engines of social reproduction still seem to run smoothly even when other things fail to run.  We can turn an observation into a question: is there a connection between the inefficiency in how some things are run and the efficiency with which institutions reproduce themselves?

Let’s return to one of the common experiences shared with me: that if you make a formal complaint you are often left waiting. You might be waiting for a response to a letter; waiting for a report into an enquiry; waiting for an outcome, for somebody else to make a decision. A common word for describing this time of waiting is “dragging,” a complaint keeps dragging on; taking up more and more time. I think of that time as a heavy bag, the longer it takes the heaver it becomes, what you have to carry around, what you can barely carry; time as becoming heavier. This weight matters. Just remember complaints are hard to make: you are often warned against making them; those who proceed often do so out of a sense of urgency, a complaint is often a last resort. And a future can be what is at stake; a decision on a complaint can be an opening or closing of a door. Everything can stop when a complaint is ongoing; you can put a life on hold or you can feel your life has been put on hold.

It is not just that complaints take a long time. Complaints often take often much longer than they are supposed to take if they were conducted in accordance with policies and procedures; guidelines are often time lines.  I have noted how there is a gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen. A gap can be a lag; when a complaint is put forward, you often end up lagging behind where you are supposed to be.

In that time-lag, the person who initiates a formal complaint is often very busy. You are waiting but you are also reminding, prompting, sending enquiries: asking questions; questions after questions: what is happening, what is going on now? This is another sense in which complaint can be understood as diversity work, a complaint as the additional work you have to do because you are not supported. That diversity workers often have to push harder to get things done is a sign of the lack of support for the work they are doing. As one practitioner described “you need persistence and I think that’s what you need to do because not everyone has an interest in equity and diversity issues.” When your task is to get information out that is less valued by an organization, the techniques for moving information become even more important.  Even after policies have been agreed, or commitments to diversity and equality have been made, you can still encounter what another practitioner described as “institutional inertia,” a lack of an institutional will to change. By inertia we are back to that institutional brick wall. A wall gives concrete expression to an experience of being stopped. A wall can be thought of as not only hard but as slow: you can encounter a resistance in the slowness of an uptake.

In listening to those who have complained, I have been learning about the effects of slowness. One interviewee described her complaint process as “Do-It-Yourself,” you have to teach yourself the policies, write the documents and ensure they keep moving around because otherwise the process would stall. She described how she had to keep pushing after she submitted a complaint: “I had to keep pushing them and pushing them to get their act together. I had to push them because according to their policy there were so many days you had after submitting the complaint for it to be investigated.” She has to push to get them to meet their deadlines because if they do not meet their deadlines the complaint would not be investigated. To stall or to slow can be to stop. Sometimes you have push to make an organisation comply with its own procedures. (3) A complaint can require you to push harder; a complaint as what you have to do because of what is not being done or what would not otherwise be done. We might pick up something else from the verb “push.” A complainer is often judged as being pushy; in making a complaint you often have to become what you are judged as being.

One student talked to me about how when they made a complaint they had to become an administrator: “I am the one who is having to arrange all this information and send it to different people because they are just not talking to each other, I had to file the forms in order to get the human resources records, I had to do all the FOI requests; it was on me to do all of this work.”  We can nite here that inefficiency is often a product of a failure of internal communication systems: things get lost because of who is not talking to each other. In order to stop a complaint from being stopped, you have to become a channel of communication. We need to think about how you have to do this work in addition to doing the work of complaint. As this student pointed out “I am the one who made the complaint and I have all the emotional damage around that to deal with.” So you pick up more work whilst also having to deal with the emotional damage that surrounds complaint. The administrative labour can thus also be understood as emotional labour: what you have to pick up on top of everything else.

Strategic inefficiency describes not just the slowness of an uptake but how that slowness is useful and purposeful. Another student described how her university took seven months to respond to her complaint and then another seven months to respond to her response to their response to her complaint (if it had followed its own procedures, it would have taken no more than three months). This student had her own explanation for what was going on: “it is my theory they been putting in the long finger and pulling this out, dragging this out over unacceptable periods of time, to try and tire me out so that I will just give up.” The point of tiring the complainer seems to be to get her to retire that complaint.

A number of people I have spoken to thus far have understood slowness as a deliberate tactic used to try and stop them from taking a complaint forward. I interviewed two students together about their experiences of making a collective complaint. One of these students described: “what they are doing is trying to exhaust you. It’s a very good strategy. And it’s ongoing.” (4)  Being slow in responding to a complaint is a “good strategy” for stopping a complaint because of what it creates: that sense of exhaustion. Exhaustion seems to be not just the effect but the point of a complaint process: you tire people out so they will give up. The style and tone as well as the slowness of institutional responses to complaint can be strategic. They talked about how a meeting was set up and conducted after they made their initial complaint:

Student 1: They didn’t record it or take any notes. I think there were one or two lines written.

Student 2: It was very odd.

Student 1: You did feel it was a kind of cosy chat.

Student 2: Very odd; very odd.

Student 1: They were sort of wrapping the conversation up, because it had gone on, and I said this is us making a formal complaint and there was shift in the atmosphere. And I said we do want to follow it up as a complaint.

Informality can be used as a way of setting a tone; a way of trying to discourage an informal complaint from becoming formal; a way of turning a complaint into a casual conversation that can be more easily wrapped up. This effort to turn a complaint into a “cosy chat” is not an obvious example of strategic inefficiency. But I think we catch something by making it an example. We can begin to appreciate how inefficiency can also be a style or performance; how a bumbling along, a being ineffectual, can be achieving something. The failure to take notes in the usual manner, so that they could be written up as minutes, is useful to the organisation; if you do not follow the usual procedures for conducting meetings, you are also stopping a record from being created. We are learning the utility of a certain style of institutional response to complaint; how a casual and informal approach can be an effort not to register that a complaint is being made.

If the meeting is conducted without an agenda, an atmosphere can become an agenda. It is then as if the complainer is requiring an adherence to rules and conventions, or as if formality is itself an imposition of will or even a kind of antagonism. A formal complaint would become what someone makes because they have failed to resolve the situation more amicably. Note how when the students make clear that they are making a formal complaint there is a “change of atmosphere.” They described to me how from this point the tone of all communication changed: “the tone was horrendous. It was basically like ‘tut’ (sound accompanied by a hand slapping the table) stop it attitude; like that ‘tut’ if you could make that noise it was in there somewhere.” An atmosphere can be how a complaint is handled; that tut sound that no, stop, stop being, stop doing, only has to be articulated given the attempt to stop a complaint has failed.

Strategic inefficiency can help us to understand that not creating a record is not simply about the failure to do something but is an attempt to do something. When that attempt fails a complaint is being made.  Strategic inefficiency can refer not only to how records are not made but also how they are lost. Thus far a number of instances of lost complaint files or lost evidence from files have been reported to me. One person I interviewed had evidence of how her university made evidence disappear (she took screen shots of data before someone manually removed that data). She described what happened as sabotage.  That term has certainly been used by a number of people to describe the deliberate removal of evidence, or the disqualification of evidence, that would otherwise have supported a complaint.

Evidence can also go missing because of administrative incompetence – or at least incompetence can be used as an explanation for what has gone missing. In such instances, you would not need to deliberately remove something; it can disappear as a consequence of how things tend to be done. I am thinking of one case when a file that held information into a large scale enquiry into harassment was lost alongside a number of other files. The organisation’s own way of accounting for the missing files was that “there was a problem in Human Resources.” If inefficiency can be a tendency, a way of working that has become habitual such that it does not require special effort for things to be lost, then acquiring that tendency can be useful or convenient. A history that is inconvenient can be erased by the failure to keep records properly, which makes the failure to keep records properly rather convenient. It is also the case that inefficiency can then be used to imply that a file that had in fact been removed was just lost; losing all the files can mask the deliberate removal of one. That it would be impossible to know whether this is the case – whether or not the loss of all the files was used to mask the removal of one file- might be teaching us something about the utility of inefficiency.

Inefficiency can be used as evidence that you have not removed the evidence.

And thus: inefficiency can be how evidence of the removal of evidence is removed. (5)

A bumbling professor always losing the scripts becomes a bumbling university always losing the files.

By using the term strategic I am suggesting that inefficiency is beneficial to an organisation whether or not it involves deliberation; inefficiency can be understood as a means of achieving an end. What is perceived to be beneficial to an organisation often evokes a “who,” and the “who” that is deemed beneficial might be the same “who” that decides what is beneficial to an organisation. I want to suggest that inefficiency is beneficial insofar as it supports an already existing hierarchy. I think of inefficiency and I think of who’s who, a manual of importance, a biography of the notable. I have already made a connection between inefficiency and hierarchy by suggesting that inefficiency can be used to protect some people from doing certain kinds of work, the work that is less valued (which does not mean this work is without value or that we don’t value the work); the work of administration. A hierarchy is also supported because of the differential impact of inefficiency. We might assume that inefficiency is annoying but indiscriminate, affecting everyone and everything. Listening to those who have complained has taught me how inefficiency can be discriminatory.

Let’s go back to complaints processes that take too long. Another student described similar delays in her complaint:  “Months went by. Nothing. They really botched my complaints procedure just by the virtue of missing their own deadlines.”  A botched job can be your life. Now this student was an international student and she was waiting for her complaint to be processed whilst her visa was running out: “Ten days before my visa was about to run out I applied for a new visa. And they were like how can we give her a visa she is on probation. You have to have good standing to get a visa and they were like this complaint thing is open.” As she describes further:

I had no money, I couldn’t work. Every week they were like we will give you an outcome next week, then the next. I couldn’t renew the lease where I was renting. I really couldn’t continue with my work as I wasn’t sure I could stay. Everything depended on the outcome of the complaint. I was like homeless, staying with a friend on a couch. And it ended up being a 6 month process.

For students and staff who are more precarious because of their residential or financial status, the longer a complaint takes the more you risk losing. If you are already on the edge, barely managing to stay on top of things, a delay can mean everything topples over; a whole life can unravel, thread by thread; you can be left homeless, even more dependent upon the good will of others. The impact of delays can be devastating; there can be more and more knock-on effects. In this case the student’s complaint file also went missing. The university explained the lost file as being about a job turn-over; she was given a new complaint officer during the complaint. A new officer should not mean a lost file: after all efficiency is about the creation of filing systems so that materials can be retained and located.  Nevertheless it is worth noting that this university (like many other organisations) had a high turn-over of staff working in human resources on student complaints. And this in itself is telling: inefficiency can also be an effect of how a university does not support those who are employed to do certain kinds of work; inefficiency can be an effect of not looking after staff properly, which can lead to the failure to acquire a long term institutional memory. Inefficiency can be an effect of constantly making changes to procedures for doing things so that no one acquires a stable footing. Inefficiency (strategic or otherwise) can be effect of under-funding and the institutionalization of staff precarity, which is also about the unequal distribution of precarity; how some are protected from having to keep moving or from having to keep up with the constancy of changes to procedures. It is important for me to stress this point because there are many committed administrators in the sector trying to do their best for students and staff who have to make complaints and grievances. Making the problem one of administration, that “problem in Human Resources,” can be how much deeper more structural problems are not addressed.

The failure to support those who giving support to those who are making complaints is an institutional failure; a failure to support that gets passed around; and passed on. In this case, the student did take her case to the Office for the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). They recommended that the university “improve its record keeping.”  There is nothing wrong with this recommendation. But we learn from it; how the failure to support those who are most precarious is framed as an administrative failure.

For some an administrative failure is a life disaster.

If complaints can be stopped through what appears as administrative failure, complaints teach us who organisations are for. By this I mean: those for whom an organisation is built are also protected from doing certain kinds of administrative work or from the consequences of having to do such work.  If an organisation is built for you, no adjustment is needed for you to participate; you can enter a room or participate in a meeting after hours or complete an exam in the allocated place and time. If you need adjustments in order to participate, if you are a misfit to use Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s (2014, 2011) important term, you have to do more work. We could think of complaint as a misfit genre; as the work you have to do because or when you do not fit.

Some of this additional work is administrative work or paper work. Students and staff with disabilities often have to enter complex administrative processes in order to secure the “reasonable adjustments” they need to be able to do their work, which also means that administrative problems can stop you from being able to do your work. Inequalities are reproduced by the extent to which some people more than others are required to enter administrative processes to acquire what they need to proceed.

A student with a chronic illness talked to me about the additional work she had to do in order to secure reasonable adjustments. In doing that work, she learnt all about the institution; she learns about what I have been calling strategic inefficiency. As she describes: “I uncovered all these failed processes. You register with disabled services, disabled services get your docs, and then they send a memo to your department and then something else happens with it. And what was supposed to happen was that it was supposed to go from Disability Services to the Disability Liaison Administrator who was just the head secretary who would then cascade it around relevant staff but who never did that.” If there are no efficient systems for passing information around memos get lost; what is supposed to happen does not happen. The more units and staff are involved, the easier it is for something to be lost; it just takes one person not to send something on for the memo not to come into effect (without an out you lose an about). And a lost memo can mean a person too can end up lost in a system. This student notes how “everyone is rubbish in tracking disability.” The consequences of rubbish systems for keeping track of things are very different depending on who or what is being tracked.

And then: if you have to complain because of failed processes you have to enter yet more failed processes. She has to complain about how her complaint about the failure to be supported is handled: “the complaint hinged on them not giving me the time. I said you should have given me more time, more than a week, to do all this paper work. You can’t then get pissed off with me when I don’t do the paperwork and moreover you can’t do that for a PhD student who is registered disabled.” As she commented wryly: “yes I was interrupted but if I stop being a student I don’t stop being disabled.”  If organisations take too long to respond to complaints, they can also require those who complain respond in a time that is not possible given their needs and circumstances, which might be the same needs and circumstances that led them to make the complaint in the first place. The ableism that leads you to complain, not being given the additional time and support you need, is re-encountered when you complain, not being given the additional time and support you need.

You are not given the support necessary to proceed and you are not given the support necessary to complain about not being given the support necessary to proceed: what then, what to do then? We can try to track what and who does not get tracked; who gets “lost in the system.”

Missing files, missing persons: a history can be what is erased; a history of what didn’t make it; who didn’t make it; who wouldn’t take it. Strategic inefficiency: how some disappearances are not counted by being deemed “lost in the system.”

In this post I have explored and explained the connection between the discriminatory effects of inefficiency and the efficiency with which organization reproduce themselves as being for certain kinds of people, those whose papers are in the right place, those who are in the right place; those who are upright, able; well-resourced, well-connected. What follows is a paradox. A paradox is a scene of instruction.

Those who have the least need to complain are those who could most handle the consequences of complaint.

Those who have the most need to complain are those who can least handle the consequences.

Making it hard to complain is thus not some separate realm of institutional activity from the rest of the work being done. Making it hard to complain about what is being done is how institutions are doing what they do: the beep; beep of an error message is the clunk; clunk of a machine.

  1. I am not by any means suggesting the issues raised in this post are specific to the higher education sector. The university is my field more than my object: the study is located here because that is where I have been located. I will be drawing on data that I have been able to gather because of that location. I understand my project on complaint as being more about power than the university as such. You could do similar projects on complaint across different sectors. In terms of the arguments offered in this post, we could explore the use of exhaustion as a management technique or the connection between administrative inefficiency and social precarity across a range of sectors.
  2. One could point to political movements where “going slow” can be a manifestation of resistance to a capitalist imperative to speed up and be productive (one might think of the history of the word sabotage – that old shoe – a term I bring up later in a different context). What I am implying is that inefficiency can be used as if it is a form of resistance to mask how inefficiency is working in some contexts to enable individuals to speed up by passing the “slower work” on to others.
  3. Following complaints is allowing me to push forward some of my earlier critiques of policies and procedures as non-performatives (how you can name something without bringing it into effect or name something in order not to bring it into effect). I will be writing more on policies and procedures in due course.
  4. “A very good strategy:” you can hear how the term “strategic inefficiency” is drawn from the words used by those who shared their experience with me, experiences I am now sharing with you. If terms are drawn from our data we also return to the data with these terms handy: they can help us make connections between different experiences.
  5. I noted in an earlier post on sexual harassment (written before I began this research) how the failure to keep records properly or the refusal to keep records properly (records can be identified as bureaucratic or neoliberal instruments) is a central means by which a culture of harassment is reproduced. In other words you reproduce a problem by not recording a problem.




Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2014).”The Story of My Work: How I became Disabled,” Disability Studies Quarterly, 34(2). np.

————————- (2011). “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” Hypatia: A  Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 26(3): 591-609.


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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13 Responses to Strategic Inefficiency

  1. Deborah Western says:

    Thank you Sara.
    I am thinking about the influence of timing too. After waiting weeks for the outcome of a review of the university department in which I work, and the course it runs, some outcomes are announced via e-mail in the afternoon of 20th December, the day the university closes for the Christmas-New Year break. No files lost (yet)! But time for debate or comment or complaint is lost.

  2. Rory Allen says:

    The account of how a professor deliberately shirked routine tasks in order to spend more time at his own research is a carbon copy of a case at my own university. The failure of technology and the inefficiency and difficulties this causes for students, is also mirrored here. It seems to me that the senior decision-makers love to put up new buildings and to name them (after dead white males of course), but ensuring that the buildings are properly designed and fully equipped with the software and hardware to make them capable of best use with students, is a secondary consideration. In fact it is hardly a consideration at all. Bravo for putting this so well.

  3. Susan Larner says:

    I am not an academic and perhaps much of this is over my head, but for some time I’ve thought about all the work that goes on behind the scenes w/o notice (and less pay) while someone, paid quite well is out there being a spokesperson and taking credit for leadership. I’ve wondered if this is just part of life in *all* workplaces and life itself.
    Hoping that the younger generation will help fix what seems like a mess to me.

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  5. ThinkPurpose says:

    Awesome! I love this. This is NOT just universities, it’s large organisations. I recognize this from the last 3 of my workplaces, they reproduce themes perfectly but if you’re a customer who’s a ‘misfit’ in their eyes then you’re doomed to such hard work. You end up knowing way more than they ever could about their own organisation.

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  7. Jeff Halvorsen says:

    Working in administration in an agency serving vulnerable women, I began a partnership with an immigrant serving agency to increase the competence of our services to women with immigration experiences. This work was at first warmly received by program managers. But as time went on and calls for changes emerged. The managers suddenly became too busy and had more important work to accomplish. This was used to maintain a standardized (white) approach to services. My contract was not renewed six months later (not disrupting my own life. I have enough privilege to be okay, but effective in maintaining white supremecay in services).

    Thank you for your concept of nonperformativity.

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