Can Green Tape Make An Effective Bureaucracy?

This article was originally published on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s online MPA program blog, Inside the MPA@UNC.

When people think of bureaucracy, thoughts of rules, regulations, “red tape,” or slow-moving actions may come to mind. But there can be benefits to bureaucratic approaches to management, and these benefits can result in transparency, guidance, consistency, and simplicity for an organization and its employees.

MPA@UNC faculty member Leisha DeHart-Davis, associate professor of Public Administration and Government, suggests envisioning “Green Tape” as a theory of effective organizational rules that encourages the cooperation of all relevant individuals, such as employees, and makes outcomes more predictable and manageable. Beyond bureaucracy, the lessons of Green Tape can be applied in other areas and can help a student or mid-career professional gain insight into how to succeed in any organization.

We sat down with DeHart-Davis to learn more about Green Tape. She described how assumptions about bureaucracy can shortchange the potential effectiveness of both the rule-making processes and the policies they govern in the workplace. She indicated that Green Tape can help address numerous managerial tasks, and she proposes five attributes of good Green Tape design and implementation that—when considered and applied in rule-making—increase the likelihood of successful adoption, adherence, and execution:

1. Rule Formalization
2. Rule Logic
3. Consistent Application
4. Optimal Control
5. Understood Purposes

Rule Formalization, the process and outcome of drafting a written rule, is beneficial for Green Tape by strengthening a rule’s legitimacy. Written rules provide discipline and open up the rule processes to allow employees to provide input in its formalization. By questioning assumptions and detecting leaps of logic, rules gain legitimacy. In contrast, unwritten rules that fail to consider employee input can be construed as arbitrary or illegitimate, thus decreasing the appeal for employees to follow rules. For example, a manager might ask: What problem does this rule address? What are the potential best and worst outcomes of implementing a rule or not?

Rule Logic, clear connections between rule requirements and objectives, provides a path for effective action by management. Rule logic should consist of common sense and should not require exhaustive analysis. When the goal is evidently clear and direct, the likelihood of rule compliance increases. For example, a manager might ask: What’s the purpose of the rule? Who are the stakeholders and what are their perspectives? How will the rule solve the problem and achieve its purposes?

Consistent Rule Application is less about rigid adherence and more about ensuring that particular employees or groups within an organization are not systematically exempt from rule requirements. While occasional rule exemptions can be made at managerial discretion, exemptions that cause a pattern can constrain a rule’s reach and undermine its ability to achieve its objectives. Consistent application increases effectiveness by firming a sense of procedural and managerial fairness.

Optimal Control, striking a balance that neither stifles creative initiative nor leaves free rein (leading to chaos), increases the chance of Green Tape success. Optimal control seeks out constraints that trigger desired behavior responses, while not being so excessively controlling to the point of generating inefficiencies or co-opting more resources than are necessary to achieve desired outcomes.

Understood Rule Purposes, much like rule formalization, increases the likelihood of employee compliance. When employees lack an understanding of a rule’s purpose, workplace alienation can arise. However, when managers regularly communicate rule purposes and can make evident the contributions of employees, then the work of employees gains a greater sense of meaning and purpose to the employee as well as the organization as a whole.

It’s important to remember that the goal of Green Tape is to enhance the transparency, guidance, and consistency for an organization and its employees. How could your organization implement the attributes of Green Tape?

About Professor Leisha DeHart-Davis:

Leisha DeHart-Davis joined the School of Government in 2012. Previously, she was a faculty member with the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration, where she also served as doctoral program director. DeHart-Davis’ research focuses on “Green Tape,” the term she uses to describe effective policies and procedures. She specializes in employee engagement and workplace climate studies within local government organizations. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory and Public Administration Review. You can find a complete list of DeHart-Davis’ publications here. DeHart-Davis holds a PhD in public policy from Georgia Institute of Technology.

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