The inevitability of red tape

I have a piece in The Guardian pointing out that the Abbott government’s Red Tape Reduction program is basically cover for a couple of big measures benefit the mining and gambling industries.

A bigger question raised by the piece: why does bureaucracy and red tape seem to grow without limits? Anyone who has ever worked as an academic, faced with a proliferation of pro-vice-chancellors, executive deans and multiple layers of hierarchy has certainly asked this question, and there’s nothing unusual about academics. The uselessness of administrators is the central theme of the comic strip Dilbert, popular in offices around the world.

The obvious explanations are
(a) stupidity; and
(b) administrative bloat benefits administrators and they are the ones who make the decisions

I don’t think either of these works adequately. Stupidity is certainly common, but the phenomenon is too pervasive to be explained in this way. As regards administrative self-interest, the problem is that senior executives could potentially gain a lot by cutting mid-level bureaucracy, and many have tried (remember ‘flatter organizations’ and ‘lean and mean’).

My own hypothesis is that every big mistake (for example, an undetected embezzlement or a mishandled episode of harassment) produces a permanent bureaucratic response designed to prevent a recurrence. This is very costly to reverse (who wants to deal with the first big embezzlement just after they downsized the accounting department) even if it would, in some sense, be less costly to put up with occasional failures. Moreover, for both good and bad reasons, I think we are, as a society, becoming less tolerant of institutional failures across a wide range of activities (systematic wrongdoing by financial institutions is a major counterexample but, I think, exceptional). So, we have more checks and balances, and more bureaucrats to enforce them.

23 thoughts on “The inevitability of red tape

  1. Numerous quantitative studies support your claims. The ratio of admin to faculty is rising all the time. I recall reading somewhere that in Oz it has gone from 0.5 to over 1 in around 40 years. Where I work, the admin are all hired on permanent contracts, while the scientists are (almost) all on temporary contracts. The admin used to help with our admin, now we have to do it all and they check that it is correct. If not it gets sent back and we have to redo it.

    I found this quote amusing (if it wasn’t so painfull true) “Professor Ginsberg said he had analysed the publicly available minutes of administrator meetings and found that in 70 per cent of them the main agenda item was about previous or future meetings. “It’s meetings about meetings about meetings.” It reminds me of Tokugawa Japan and the Sankin-kotai or alternate attendance system of keeping the Daimyo in check.

  2. There are uni teaching labs I have some vague responsibility for. From time to time there are complaints the the lab demonstrators (who I choose) have left the labs in a terrible mess. A couple of years ago, “they” made a form for the lab demonstrators to complete, which essentially said that they’d left the labs in good order. They weren’t supposed to get paid unless they completed the form.

    I used it for a semester or so, but then ditched it. Sometimes I use it as a threat to the current crop of demonstrators: “If you leave the labs in a mess you’ll have to fill in this form to get paid”.

    But I hate this sort of rubbish.

  3. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, for-profit organisations, especially the larger ones, are red-tape creation machines, when compared to not-for-profit organisations, especially government. Look at the for-profit university compared to the not-for-profit university: a whole layer of PR, more HR, extra governance-related paper form punching, and much greater scrutiny (ironically) by government over the spend of grants, all chasing scarce resources.

    As plaasmatron has mentioned, a lot of admin work has devolved down onto academic staff. That process was well underway when I left the higher education system. Again, ironically, the computer was the enabler of this devolution, for academics tended to have them. Screwed by technology.

    Having said that, an office worker might see the form filling as one vital component of their job, whereas an academic is more inclined to see it as a hindrance to their real job, i.e. doing research for publication, running a team of post-doc/phders on one or more research projects, and teaching. Perhaps some outreach activities as well. Anyway, it is to some extent a matter of perspective. Can’t say I recall meeting anyone who loves red tape and paperwork, however.

    A second reason we believe there is more red tape is an illusion due to the proliferation of data we pass around the place, whether by electronic or physical means, and that gives the impression of more paperwork, when in fact it is our increased efficiency in moving that ever greater mass of data which means more checks and rubber-stamping to be done.

    Even so, a lot of paperwork should be managed in electronic form, and not merely as an electronic copy of the old paperwork as happened in the first wave, but as part of the work flow itself, the necessary checks being done automagically on a just-in-time basis. Where a signature is truly required, such as a witnessing of something, an electronic signature/certificate should be adequate, sent in real time from whatever mobile device the signature provider is using/carrying. We’ve finally got the technology and the low cost for this to be a feasible prospect now.

  4. It’s a manifestation of neo-liberalism.

    I started to see it in the mid 1990s in mid-sized and larger law firms. Logically, the people who actually make the money for the firm are the practitioners. The people who “do” the law stuff.

    Of course they also need the support staff to help them “produce” the “product”. Obviously the organization also needs people to handle the money side of the business, the ‘accounts’ department. And so on…

    But then the “managers” started to appear. The “fee-earners” used to be the core asset of the law firm and were to be assisted and accommodated in performing that role. But when the “managers” arrived the practitioners increasingly found themselves being pushed around and ordered to do pointlessly timewasting things at the behest of the managers. In a lot of cases the senior partnership were served a very refreshing dose of Kool-Aid about how excellent this new way would be. And they happily enforced the “managers'” dictates upon the practitioners and support staff.

    There were a few who bucked up against it, but mostly they couldn’t do anything and the rest adopted the “go along to get along” mindset.

    I was thinking of some term like “managerialism”. I see JQ already did a post on that under ‘word for wednesday’ on 2nd July 2003! JQ wrote:

    In particular, managerialism and neoliberalism are at one in their rejection of notions of professionalism.

    So I searched a bit more on “managerialism” and I found something that is probably precisely on JQ’s point (especially because it goes under the title “Managerialism and Education”, although I believe it is corroding all parts of our society):

    …Paradoxically, managerialism assumes an autonomous, individualistic, transparent and self interested, rational individual at its core that is admonished to ‘take responsibility’, to be ‘self-motivated’, and so on. Far from assuming a stable autonomous individual, managerialism has not yet demarcated the senses in which an individual might exist as a social actor. Managerialism then, leaves us wondering about the ‘who’ that is engaging in its required performances. If the problem is essentially a struggle about practices as well as language, what people say and do within institutions actually matters. Under the previous democratic governance of institutions, the dominant opinion was for the redistribution of educational opportunities and sought to remedy the exclusiveness of education. These same people are now implicated in managerialism. In the interests of ‘better’ education they (albeit grudgingly) write mission statements, implement strategic plans, design appraisal forms, and measure efficiencies. The result is that the governance of education is transformed under the new managerialism.

    Resistance to managerialism as a form of domination is sometimes recommended as something that will enhance autonomy. But because managerialism sees itself as the antidote to chaos, irrationality, disorder, and incompleteness, there are no spaces within such a social order in which autonomy can be contested legitimately. Managerial definitions of quality, efficiency, improved productivity or self-management, construct a particular version of autonomy. Those who do not desire these managerial constructs of autonomy are simply defined as absurd, as under managerialism, these notions appear as self-evidently ‘good’. Even the presentation of resistance itself indicates an engagement already within the definitions provided by managerialism. …

    Final anecdote, interestingly from a commercial airline pilot. This fellow was telling me that he was taking an early redundancy package from Australia’s best known airline even though he was years away from retirement age. I asked why and he said it was because the pilot’s expertise and ability to exercise professional judgment was constantly being eroded and being replaced by “rote” procedures and strictly formal “lists” of responses to situations. Apart from also being constantly pushed to increase “productivity” (more work for less pay) he refused to compromise safety by agreeing to be bound by formalized procedures when reality often required instant responses which would conflict with those procedures. He gave several examples of close calls or hairy situations which could have ended badly, but which were perfectly acceptable to “management” because “correct procedures” had been followed.

    If everyone dies, we can review the procedures. But if you deviate from the procedures and nobody gets hurt, you will be punished.

    Neo-liberalism is the problem.

  5. Jeez, JQ, I’ve had to dig deep for online sources for Weber and bureaucracy. But here goes:

    Weber’s interest in the nature of power and authority, as well as his pervasive preoccupation with modern trends of rationalization, led him to concern himself with the operation of modern large-scale enterprises in the political, administrative, and economic realm. Bureaucratic coordination of activities, he argued, is the distinctive mark of the modern era. Bureaucracies are organized according to rational principles. Offices are ranked in a hierarchical order and their operations are characterized by impersonal rules. Incumbents are governed by methodical allocation of areas of jurisdiction and delimited spheres of duty. Appointments are made according to specialized qualifications rather than ascriptive criteria. This bureaucratic coordination of the actions of large numbers of people has become the dominant structural feature of modern forms of organization. Only through this organizational device has large- scale planning, both for the modern state and the modern economy, become possible. Only through it could heads of state mobilize and centralize resources of political power, which in feudal times, for example, had been dispersed in a variety of centers. Only with its aid could economic resources be mobilized, which lay fallow in pre-modern times. Bureaucratic organization is to Weber the privileged instrumentality that has shaped the modern polity, the modern economy, the modern technology. Bureaucratic types of organization are technically superior to all other forms of administration, much as machine production is superior to handicraft methods.

    Yet Weber also noted the dysfunctions of bureaucracy. Its major advantage, the calculability of results, also makes it unwieldy and even stultifying in dealing with individual cases. Thus modern rationalized and bureaucratized systems of law have become incapable of dealing with individual particularities, to which earlier types of justice were well suited. The “modern judge,” Weber stated in writing on the legal system of Continental Europe, ” is a vending machine into which the pleadings are inserted together with the fee and which then disgorges the judgment together with the reasons mechanically derived from the Code.”

    To which I’ll add a few comments. I worked for more than thirty years as an RN, in a totally democratic administrative system, the NSW public hospital system, and was never a captive of bureaucrats. I worked for five years in the NSW child protection system, as a child protection ‘specialist’ which was, as are all NSW state administrations, totally politicised and bureaucratised, beyond Weber’s imagination.

    The difference between the two work experiences comes down to different types of personal subjectivity. In one, the health services, there were people capable of genuinely human intersubjectivity. In the other, NSW child protection, the predominant authorities were dysfunctional, personality disordered, racist, bigoted, hierarchical (ethnic groups like Hindus did well because they understood status), cowardly and infantile.

    So, I’d say that red tape multiplies according to the power that citizens cede to those people who should not be ceded any authority at all. The power of bureaucrats is the measure of the weakness of the citizenry.

  6. @jungney
    There was once a computer game called “Bureaucracy”; I don’t know if there was ever an objective…which may have been the point 🙂

  7. @Megan
    Your pilot’s story is particularly chilling in the light of the Lufthansa flight. The locked cabin door to keep out hijackers obeys anti-terror logic but not a sick occupant. The ‘solution’ – two pilots always present on flight deck is hardly a ‘confidence’ – best practice – solution at all, let alone obedience to the ‘laws’ of capitalism – low cost carriers.

  8. I think a variant on your reasoning (which I agree with) is due to some form of risk aversion. Few managers would get punished for adding bureaucracy for the purpose of lowering regulatory or operational risk – and they would point to some example of fraud as in your example about how this is needed. However, if they do nothing, even if they argue that the cost/benefit isn’t there, and some kind of fraud does occur, then the ones who didn’t act in response to a foreseeable risk. Basically ass-covering.

  9. Risk aversion does seem to be the key driver of this behaviour. I think risk aversion has increased in recent decades, but I don’t know if there are data on this. Does risk aversion increase as income increases?

  10. I spent most of my career in the bureaucracy. There’s truth to JQ’s explanation, but it is IMHO, a bit more complicated. I had several jobs where the form-filling increased, but also several where the task was to reduce the form-filling. From going through the files, it tended to work in cycles: a downswing where each mistake led to another rule or line on a form, then a point where the complexity and inter-actions of the rules was recognised and some attempt made to prune back to a core. Often the core had changed, too, and the rules were an obstacle to refocussing on the business.

    But there’s also a couple of other drivers. One is that management has increasingly become divorced from operations. Partly because management is much more about finances as an end, rather than a means or result. So management deals much more in abstractions, and imposes abstract rules, because managers largely have no real idea of what the operational constraints or issues are.

    A second is that operations have been made more efficient to the point where very few people are needed to do stuff. But the rewards systems is not set up to distribute the fruits of this achievement. The money has to go somewhere, so it gets fed into layers of administration – they are the footmen and maidservants of the new order.

    A final point is that as the upper classes have shifted towards predatory rather than productive investment, they need more foot-soldiers, patsies and cut-outs.

  11. How do the few excellent bureaucracies escape the common pathologies? Nu favourite example is the General Staff of the Prussian army under the elder Moltke. The army deployed against the French in 1870 was about 850,000 men. Moltke ran it with a staff of 14 officers and 76 other ranks, according to the military historian Sir Michael Howard (The Franco-Prussian War, p. 64). Key features: Moltke hand-picked the staff officers from the cream of the graduates of the military academy; general staff officers were rotated to operational units (armies and corps), so that all staff officers had a common culture; and KISS. Moltke was well aware of the fog of war, and apparently of the costs of meddling; orders were couched in terms of objectives not methods. The General Staff was separate from the much larger Quartermaster-General’s office, responsible for food and ammunition.

    Whether an organisation can sustain such a standard without a charismatic genius to lead it is doubtful. Hyman Rickover is another example. By 1914, the Prussian system had warped in that the staff network was actually taking many of the operational decisions, sidelining the field commanders.

  12. I was about to say Parkinson’s Law, but PML beat me to it.
    Parkinson devotes several chapters to explaining why civil servants recruit more civil servants and generate more work for each other, though I think some of his insights are now out of date.

  13. There are always some people who need to set rules on others. Look at the signs in your tea room.

  14. Anecdotal experience is not evidence, but when it comes to dealing with red tape the state based planning schemes implemented by local councils are some huge Gordian knot of competing and often mutually exclusive requirements.

    In trying to do the right thing, we approached the council with a low cost development proposal. It now appears the council is prepared to spend thousands nit-picking our application for which we have been charged in the low hundreds. Nowhere in this labyrinth of madness are the most basic common-sense questions asked, as in, are we trying to comply with the planning scheme (the answer is yes) and what is the simplest and most cost effective way to come to an acceptable outcome.

    Instead we have had left field objections from the council, moved goal posts, arcane interpretation of common English language terms, and a level of intransigence that would make your average two year old blush. On top of that, one only has to drive around the shire to see how a strict letter compliance with the planning schemes produces some really, really bad built environment outcomes.

    This is a simple case where rules cannot ascertain an aesthetic outcome. We probably should just do stupid within the planning scheme, but we don’t like doing stupid. But I’m sure Kafka would be impressed.

  15. John

    As regards administrative self-interest, the problem is that senior executives could potentially gain a lot by cutting mid-level bureaucracy, and many have tried (remember ‘flatter organizations’ and ‘lean and mean’).

    I think this is true for the private sector, but not for senior public service or university adminstrators where their salary is primarily determined by the size/budget of the programs they manage. Their individual salary is directly correlated with inputs managed, not outputs or outcomes achieved (which are not realistically measured).

    Hence, there are very strong incentives for senior administrators to ’empire build’ or create red tape as they are often personally rewarded for it.

    Ask yourself this, have you ever met a senior public servant or university administrator that has voluntarily suggested their area of work should be down sized?

  16. @Megan
    Just a comment in regards to the anecdote about the airline pilot. I’m not suggesting that increasing bureaucracy is generally a good thing, but the institution of checklists and requiring people to follow them is a positive thing, so long as they are done well.

    I was generally against such things, figuring that they couldn’t cover all situations and that highly skilled operators could best judge and respond to events that occurred. However, I read a book (The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande) which demonstrated a sharp reduction in surgical errors and an improvment in patient outcome after the introduction of some simple checklists to surgery. The author also looked at the situation in aviation and showed that the checklists had to be properly formulated – I think the first step in most of them was FLY THE PLANE – but that they allowed skilled pilots to take advantage of the previous experience of other pilots and deal with problems on pretty complicated bits of kit. All in all, the author put forward quite a compelling case (to me at least) and I’d recommend reading the book if you get a chance.


  17. @Jamie R

    Thanks, I’ll see if I can get it.

    As I understood the pilot’s complaint, it was not so much about checklists per se as it was about seeking to strictly prescribe the series of actions to be taken in certain circumstances which, if strictly followed, he seemed to be saying would or could have negative consequences in some cases and his view was that sometimes experience and judgment would mean taking action which would be against the prescribed course.

    That’s how I understood his issue.

  18. An unusual, but particularly interesting, case study is afforded by student politics. I was involved in my campus student organisations and AUS as a young undergraduate in 1978-83, and despite my best intentions I was unable to avoid becoming involved in my campus student organisations and NUS as a mature aged student in the 1990s. One of the things that struck me in the 1990s was how the constitutions and regulations of student organisations had grown in length, complexity and range of issues they sought to regulate compared to the earlier period. It was my observation that this growth and proliferation occurred mainly in response to big mistakes, big rorts, etc.

  19. Lots of good comments here.

    My experience is that there seems to be correlation between organisational hierarchy and red tape creating. The red tape is imposed by those who don’t have to implement the paper work.

    If the managers were forced to complete the forms they ask others to fill out I wonder how many forms would suddenly be found to not be needed?

  20. @Historyintime

    coming a bit late to this, but exactly Ikon – in most tea rooms I’ve ever known, there’s always some people who don’t clean up after themselves. You feel like telling them, hey your mum’s not here you know – except you never see who they are.

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