Rules Are Cool

Sometimes it's better to embrace red tape, not cut it.

When people talk about making government run like a business, they often point out that federal agencies are so wound up in red tape that it's hard to get their core work done. Get rid of the red tape, the argument goes, and you can get down to the actual business that needs to get done.

The pro-business argument takes many forms. Loosen the procurement rules so it doesn't take six months to get the equipment federal employees need to do their jobs. Exempt bosses from civil service restrictions so they can hire the best people to do the work. Waive the rules on government meetings with outside interests so managers can get good advice from experts.

Experiments with such flexibilities have revealed several lessons over the past couple of decades. One is that even if you get rid of one set of rules, you still need another set. The rules for any aspect of an operation exist because people need processes. Well-structured rules are fair, clear and transparent. People like structure. Indeed, some of the agencies that have dropped standard civil service rules have developed arguably more complex and burdensome human resources policies in their stead. Managers like the new rules better because they are their own, and not something handed down by the Office of Personnel Management. But they are still rules.

A second lesson is that changing the rules can have unintended consequences. When the Internal Revenue Service started ranking field offices on collections a few years back, it created a perverse incentive for managers to lean on employees to come down hard on taxpayers, even those who might have made innocent mistakes. When the Clinton administration sought to eliminate layers of management in the federal government and ordered agencies to reduce supervisory ratios, agencies simply reclassified supervisors as "team leaders," a bureaucratic waste of time.

A third lesson is that a bigger problem than onerous rules is agencies' failure to follow reasonable ones. The Justice Department had a thorough evaluation system for U.S. attorneys, but last year, headquarters officials decided to use an ad hoc process instead in determining who should stay or go for the remainder of the Bush administration. Ask those officials now, in the wake of the scandal that ensued, whether the shortcut was worth it. The National Zoo also found itself on the hot seat after a slew of animal deaths several years ago. An investigation revealed that the zoo failed to follow its own protocols.

Rules are cool. Rules are good. We need them. They must be updated as times and technologies change, but it's a mistake to think that rules aren't needed at all, or that changing or eliminating them would solve government's efficiency problems.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is that it's best to quickly comply and then get down to the agency's core work, rather than waste all that time tinkering with the rules.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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