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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.