Thursday, March 5, 2015

And now for something completely different: Government Regulation

Too much government regulation!  I’ve heard that for years from business organizations.  In fact, I was once one of the voices of business making that complaint.  On a less reasoned level, it’s also the howl of the tea party gang.  But is that really the problem?

I was in a local study group a few years ago where the issue was raised.  It was countered with a serious question about which regulations should be eliminated.  No one could come up more than a few that stood the test of examination, but they did come up with some well thought out complaints about complexity and paperwork.  Even that had its limitations. Reducing regulatory paperwork has been an ongoing battle for as long as I can remember.  It has never made much progress, and besides, I think it’s a superficial symptom. 

I wonder if the problem isn’t something else altogether.  Bureaucrats.  For me a bureaucrat is a person whose raw product is the piece of paper, form, or computer equivalent that comes across his or her desk.  The finished product is the same, filled out and sent on.  The customer is the supervisor who can reward or punish.  There are only two rules that are important.  One is the SOP manual.  The other is the informal norms of the group.

Every large organization, whether public or private, is bureaucratic.  Persons are hired to process one part of a larger process that is intended to end in something worthwhile, but what that worthwhile thing is can be invisible to the person who is responsible for just one little part of it.  And that part can become a treasured possession to be defended against intruders while doing one’s best to increase its image of importance.  As a commissioner of our local housing authority, I see that in operation at HUD where the regulations are not that bad, but the wheels of getting anything done turn slowly, communication is held close to the vest, and there is greater reward for finding a problem than in helping solve one. 

However, even small organizations can be infected with bureaucrats.  We sometimes eat at a place with valet parking where a woman I call the Dragon Lady sits in a glass booth controlling the ebb and flow of tickets and keys.  She has no interest in anything approaching customer service, only in the correct processing of tickets and keys.  That’s it.  She’s a bureaucrat in a three person operation. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Many years ago, as a very young man, I worked for a small city where the building inspector took me under his wing to explain that his job (and mine) was to help contractors get permits as painlessly as possible and to assist them in following all the building codes.  His job was to help, and in helping to enforce.  That may be more common in small organizations, but it can happen in large ones too.  If each bureaucrat knows that his or her job is to help smooth out the process and achieve success in the least complicated way, many of the complaints about regulation would evaporate.  How likely is that to happen?  At the federal, and major corporate levels, not much.

In government it starts with writing the regulations required by legislative action.  Competing interests lobby the process to get them written in a favorable way for themselves while twisting them in an unfavorable direction for competitors.  Buffeted by competing demands, regulation writers try to prove their mettle by composing them in legalese to cover every contingency no matter how unlikely.  Field staff are often rewarded for tough enforcement of the process, not the intent of the process, or at least for dotting i’s and crossing t’s.  The idea of helping simply goes out the window.  It could change, but organizational inertia works against it.  And don’t blame it on government alone.  That same bureaucratic mindset has been the undoing of many a large corporation, while others blunder along on nothing more than momentum.  Think about American auto manufacturers, major banks, and tech giants such as HP and Dell.  If inertia doesn’t get them, hubris and arrogance do.


What it comes down to is a combination of combining a culture of customer service with a culture of honoring each employee as an important contributor to customer service.  I’m not sure how that mindset can be injected into large regulatory bureaucracies.  It’s not that remedies are lacking, it’s that established fiefdoms and patterns of reward and punishment are so entrenched.  Well, there you go.  Enough said.

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