More work, more chaos
Nothing but trouble with AFAS
Michael Wilkinson is ticked off, to put it mildly. The computer science and artificial intelligence professor had recently wrapped up a research project when the Faculty of Science and Engineering’s financial department informed him that there was actually still 150,000 euros left in the project’s budget. Had he known, he would have given the PhD students working on it an extension.
‘It’s almost impossible to find out how much money is still remaining for a project’, he says. ‘It seems a bit ridiculous. The main thing anyone wants from a banking app is to know how much money they have left in their account.’
Wilkinson is one of many researchers still struggling with AFAS, which was implemented on January 1, 2020. The university-wide software system for payroll, finances, personnel management, and purchasing replaced the many different and outdated computer programs that had been used until then. AFAS offered one integrated system for everything and would be far more efficient – and hopefully cheaper, too.
The only problem: AFAS is a one-size-fits-all system and was never meant to be used in a complex organisation such as a university. However, its developers felt they could adapt it, and the university board agreed to go ahead.
Screaming in frustration
Things started to go wrong immediately. The AFAS project team was overwhelmed by the number of questions people had. Simple daily tasks became impossible. Financial controllers actually screamed in frustration at AFAS information meetings. Employees had to call the help desk via a hotline for any problem. Extra meetings were called to explain how to execute certain tasks, but they raised more questions than they answered.
It’s almost impossible to find out how much money is still remaining
Project leader Erwin Boelens tried to placate the university council in March 2020 by telling them that big software changes never go smoothly. They were in the ‘valley of despair’, he said, meaning they were at the lowest point. In another two months or so, the problems would be just about over.
But two years on, AFAS still causes problem upon problem.
Making purchases, for example, has become more difficult, says technician Arjen Kamp, who works at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. ‘The system is much slower, requires more work, provides less information, and causes more problems.’
His faculty has a budget of around 160 million euros per year. Research here often requires extremely specific and hard-to-find materials or instruments. Being able to keep account of what you buy is crucial. ‘But despite all the time that has passed, we can still not get a financial overview on our projects’, says Kamp.
There are workarounds, he admits, but those take extra time and effort, while they should be quick and easy to access. ‘You have to make phone calls to the financial department to understand the actual situation.’
And even if you do, you cannot be sure whether the information you receive is correct, adds Marco Koopman, coordinator of the PhD Academy. ‘I’m concerned, because there is a lot of money streaming through this faculty and we don’t have a direct and accurate overview of it.’
‘Every time we ask how much money we have left, we receive different answers from different people’, says Wilkinson.
To make matters worse, it is impossible to keep an eye on who buys what, says Kamp. ‘Anybody in the university can buy from anyone’s budget.’
All you have to do to make a purchase is fill out a project number and the number of the cost centre – the last one is like a bank account number. And you can look those numbers up in the system. Kamp: ‘If you feel like buying something but not paying, you can just pick a random account.’
If you feel like buying something but not paying, you can pick a random account
The old system followed the same principle, since people from different research groups may cooperate and buy things for each other. But back then, the budget owner could check who made a purchase. Now, that’s only an option if it’s over one hundred euros, and a selection of staff members can even spend five hundred euros or more before it is reported to the project leader.
And even then, the project leader can’t actually view who made the purchase. ‘I tested it myself’, Kamp says. ‘I asked some people if I could buy something on their account, but they never received any information that it was me who made the purchase. They can either accept the expense or not, but they cannot identify who’s responsible for it.’
His own professor once decided not to approve an anonymous invoice for a set of keys that had never arrived and no one she knew had ordered. Still, the financial department urged her to approve it anyway, otherwise the transaction could not be made.
‘After weeks of asking, they gave us that person’s name. But there were four people at the UG with that name. As it wasn’t a lot of money, she agreed to approve the expense, to get the financial department off her back’, says Kamp. ‘Why ask professors to approve an invoice, if not approving is not even an option?’
It’s a ‘huge flaw in the system’, he feels. And it’s extra notable, since the UG tightened the rules on expenses and purchases after UG manager Hans G. was convicted for embezzling over a million euros in 2017.s
And it’s not just the purchasing part of the software that’s a problem. Hiring teaching assistants has become more difficult because AFAS isn’t connected to the student administration system anymore. Before, a secretary at the Faculty of Economics and Business explains, she only needed a student number to access the necessary information. Now, she can only enter the basics and has to email the student to complete the form.
The system is worse than what we had before
That means extra hassle for both parties, especially because she can’t tell whether a student has a working permit or not. If they don’t, the student won’t be registered. ‘But we don’t get a notification’, she says, so she and her colleagues need to send tickets to the help desk to find out what goes wrong. ‘We got used to it, but the system is worse than what we had before.’
And then there’s the missing ‘delegate’ button, which was promised, but never appeared. ‘First they said it was because of privacy and now it seems that it is not possible in AFAS at all.’ It means she can no longer arrange things for colleagues. ‘We can only claim travel expenses for them.’
Miralda Meulman, cluster coordinator of arts, culture and media, art history and media studies, can’t hide her disappointment either. ‘The system is inefficient and frustrating.’
Extending a staff member’s contract and increasing their hours means completing two separate tasks. ‘And if it’s a fixed contract, you have to remember to close the extension manually at the end of the contract. Otherwise, it would go on forever.’
Her latest and biggest frustration: ‘I can’t increase FTEs directly anymore. I have to add the exact number of minutes. Sometimes you have to guess the precise number of seconds of work if you need to add 0.35 or 0.55 FTE. It’s ridiculous.’
Accessing the overview on the general status of employees – staff on leave, sick days that have been taken – is also slower and more work. ‘Before, I could see the overview right away. Now, you need to make a request and it might take up to a week to get an answer’, says Eveline van der Werf, HR secretary at FEB.
Not everyone is unhappy, though. Steven Brakman, chair of the global economics and management department at FEB says AFAS works ‘relatively fine’. ‘Expense payments got easier over time, going to conferences and what it entails became more efficient, especially the handling of reimbursements. There are some minor issues, but that’s the case with any other system.’
Koopman, too, admits some things have changed for the better. The HR side of things seems to run smoothly: wages are paid and people can book holiday hours and sick days. Personal files on employees are more detailed than they used to be, says Van der Werf.
Expense payments got easier and going to conferences became more efficient
FSE managing director Esther Marije Klop, chair of the change advisory board for AFAS – where improvements in the system are discussed on a daily basis – believes AFAS has come a long way and would give it an 8 on a scale from 1 to 10.
‘When we asked business coordinators to point out the problems, they provided us with forty different issues, thirty-five of which have been solved now’, she said during the faculty council meeting. ‘But unfortunately, the 20 percent left can still frustrate people quite a lot.’
The AFAS team, HR and finance are working hard to fill the last gaps, she says. ‘It’s not quite there yet.’
Koopman, for one, remains sceptical. ‘It is undeniable that the system has improved a lot. But a lot of time has passed, and two years in, AFAS still causes a lot of work for a lot of people.’
In the weeks leading up to the publication of this article, UKrant tried several times to contact, by email and by phone, UG project leader Erwin Boelens and other people at the UG involved in the implementation of AFAS. They either couldn’t be reached or didn’t wish to comment.