Tuesday, 10 May 2022

What causes red tape?

Government plans to cut red tape, again. I mean, getting rid of excess bureaucracy seems like a no-brainer as by definition excess bureaucracy is well, excess. The more interesting question is why was red tape put there in the first place?

Having to wear a hard hat on a building site, even if there is clear sky above, infuriates people. It lacks “common sense”. But given the large number of people on building sites, a discretionary policy would most likely result in a tragic accident. People are more likely to forget to put them on a hardhat if it isn’t mandatory at all times. Just as in the Covid era we traded off rights for lives, there will inevitable be some debate about what the level of regulation there should be. What I find quite difficult, however, is finding examples regulations where there would be no negative consequences of getting rid of them.

It was easy under the EU to get annoyed about excess regulation, as the government can always blame someone else for its imposition and say there is nothing that can be done. But now there is no one else blame it is going to be quite difficult for the government to change anything. If they try and change any regulation there will be a backlash because some people will be unhappy (e.g. US trade deal chlorinated chicken saga).

Saying this, we often don’t introduce regulations until something bad has happened. If you ever see a sign saying “slow” on a road, it is because someone has tragically died there. Whether or not putting a sign saying “slow” actually helps save future lives, we must be seen to be doing something in response to a bad outcome. Reactionary bureaucracy is more likely to be excess as a result.

This sort of bureaucracy is especially prevalent in management. If pens go missing in the stock cupboard at work, the management invariable needs to be seen to do something about it. If not, they have to explain to their bosses why they haven’t done anything about it.

So perhaps the manager increases the amount of stock takes or makes workers fill out a detailed forms to use a pen. Regardless of whether this improves the situation, at least the manager’s arse is covered. What the company have not done, however, is think about the opportunity cost.

As I pointed out in my anti-waste blog, a lot of the red tape created by governments in the public sector is its own attitude to waste. I have even resorted to buying my own whiteboard markers as it just isn’t worth the effort trying to source them (if you are as outraged as I am you can rectify this injustice by reimbursing me on my gofundme page here).

When a new minister comes in, they invariably want to make a mark on things. For some reason, just keeping things chugging a long doesn’t seem to cut it with voters. And this is why you get policies like changing GCSEs from being graded alphabetically (A-F) to numbers (1-9). A simple enough idea to announce, but when you consider the amount of forms and systems that need changing, it just becomes a massive pain.

So rather than the government always trying to cut tape, they should reflect upon the type of policy making that creates red tape in the first place. 

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