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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

What 'Red Tape,' Exactly?


Even before Huricane Sandy made landfall, President Obama began repeatedly promising one thing about the response to the disaster: that he would personally ensure that bureaucracy didn't get in the way of relief efforts. 

"My instructions [have]  been, do not figure out why we can't do something; I want you to figure out how we do something," Obama said Tuesday. "I want you to cut through red tape.  I want you to cut through bureaucracy." 

That followed his remarks Sunday before the storm hit: "We’re going to cut through red tape.  We’re not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules.  We want to make sure that we are anticipating and leaning forward into making sure that we’ve got the best possible response to what is going to be a big and messy system."

Late Wednesday, FEMA said it was following Obama's lead in efforts to restore electricity to storm-ravaged regions: "At the direction of the president, a power restoration working group has been established to cut through the red tape, increase federal, state, tribal, local and private sector coordination and restore power to people as quickly as possible."

All of this leads me to wonder: What red tape, exactly? I'd be very interested to see specific examples of rules and regulations that have been swept aside in the relief effort. Or is all the talk of busting bureacracy just a rhetorical way of exhorting federal employees to move quickly in helping their state and local counterparts address the situation on the ground? (Which is not necessarily a bad thing.)

What I do know is that various flexibilities, in everything from procurement of supplies to hiring of temporary personnel, have been built into the system for years to allow for rapid disaster response. Which makes me wonder if this is less a case of working around the system, and more one in which the system has been set up to address just this knd of situation, and is working properly. 

(Image via Madlen/Shutterstock.com)

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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