Could We Do Better with Fewer Rules?

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This topic contains 39 replies, has 16 voices, and was last updated by  Andrew Krzmarzick 8 years, 4 months ago.

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  • #107739

    John O’Leary
    Participant

    Stephen Goldsmith, Deputy Mayor of New York, recently argued that government is overly bound by outdated “progressive era” rules. Writes Goldsmith:

    The progressives’ rule-based approach worked well — for its time. But here in the early 21st century, the very rules which proved so valuable 100 years ago have become an albatross around the neck of public leaders.

    The full column can be read here.

    Goldsmith argues that the prudent exercise of discretion is an essential element to good managment. Even if some mistakes are made, it is preferable to being hamstrung by complex rules which themselves often produce ridiculous outcomes.

    Too many rules rob managers of discretion, and often result in suboptimal choices made “by the book.” Promotional tests within the New York City Fire Department preempt the discretion of the fire commissioner to identify and promote the high-performing battalion commander to deputy chief. Initiative and effort take a back seat to studying for an exam. I often envision the old World War II movies, the ones where the lieutenant gets killed in battle and someone has to step into a leadership role. Imagine if instead of an instant field promotion to a heroic soldier, they took a break from fighting in order to pass out tests to determine who will be promoted.

    Goldsmith’s column has generated quite a few comments on Governing, with some posters pointing out that most of the rules are there for a reason–at some point, someone abused their discretion and made a bad decision.

    What do you think? Are the rules you encounter mostly reasonable, or are they the “albatross” that Goldsmith describes? Can simple, common sense guidelines replace all the rules around procurement, hiring, and management? Tell us what you think.

  • #107817

    I’m an optimistic person and believe that people are inherently ‘good’ – that if given a menu of options, nine times out of ten they’ll try to do the right thing.

    But then there’s this story that I heard somewhere about a man, woman, snake and a piece of fruit…they were told not to eat from a particular productive tree…and what did they go and do? 🙂

    I wish it weren’t so, but I think the only human attribute that surpasses all of the noble ones in its power as a motivating force is selfishness. We want what we want when we want it (usually right away). Rules set the parameters that keep most folks from ‘getting theirs’ immediately. They’re good buffers, because usually we’re going to break them at least in part (says the notorious rolling stopper – c’mon, you know you do it, too).

    Let’s keep the rules…and allow some discretion for managers to assess their team members and use their judgment for granting exceptions…or throw them on a wiki and allow employees to tear them up and tease out those that are still valid and valuable. At that point, the crowd has determined appropriate behavior together…and the managers might not need to enforce them alone…the people will hold one another accountable.

  • #107815

    Steve Ressler
    Keymaster

    Another version I see is rules start off as loose and become tight and restrictive over time based on use.

    For example, the federal government pay scale actually can be used to reward performance through grade increases and step increases based on performance. However, it has become common practice that eligible promotions become almost entitlements and same with step increases. Therefore, the push for pay for performance in the last administration. In a lot of places, the rule wasn’t the problem – but it was execution in relation to the rule.

  • #107813

    Michele Costanza
    Participant

    I’m curious why Mr. Goldsmith chose to focus on promotional tests in the NYC fire department as one of those “rules” that hinder organizational effectiveness after acknowledging they are arguably one of the best fire departments in the country. So why mess with the promotional testing if it’s working? Wouldn’t a high-performing battalion commander be familiar with taking promotional tests and have a history of doing well on those types of assessments? Is there any data that supports the theory of high-performing battalion commanders in city fire departments being denied promotion because of low scores on promotional tests? Aren’t the tests rigorously validated prior to administering?

  • #107811

    Tim Evans
    Participant

    Sure, let’s stop requiring airlines to inspect and maintain their planes; if they crash, let the free market work– the survivors can select safer planes, right?

    While we’re at it, let’s also stop inspecting food and drugs; if people get sick or die from tainted foods or harmful, they can freely move to another food or drug, right?

    Progressivism has a reason for existence: Left alone, businesses will cheat to gain competitive advantage–it’s their nature. There are real, and honorable, reasons for these rules to exist in a society that cares about itself.

  • #107809

    Peter Sperry
    Participant

    The problem is that too many people confuse writing rules with enforcing them. Regardless of whether the issue is gun violence, food safety, financial fraud, oil drilling etc, we always layer one new set of rules on top of another and rarely focus on why the existing rules were not enforced.

    We would be much better off with about 1/10 the number of rules and 10 times the level of enforcement.

  • #107807

    John O’Leary
    Participant

    As a former Chairman of the Civil Service Commission in Mass, allow me to weigh in on this one. No matter how well designed a written (or written + physical) exam, discretion is critical when deciding which candidate is best suited. Having seen a colleague perform in real life will provide evidence of their judgment, character, and wisdom that a test simply cannot capture.

    As to data on actual job performance, consider: Is there any way to objectively measure the performance of a fire captain? (or a teacher, a nurse, or a parent?) No! Which is why it is so important to allow for the exercise of human discretion.

  • #107805

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    1) If we hired and paid for the wisdom of Solomon for each and every employee, we would need fewer rules. When we hire and pay for anything less than that, we need rules to take up the slack.

    2) Whenever anything is divided up amongst multiple parties, the odds of cooperation go down, simply because the possibilities for misunderstanding go up. Again, rules take up the slack.

    If you want to entrust someone with taking a project or initiative from inception to full implementation, then you have the luxury of making things less rule-bound. And you most certainly have my encouragement and endorsement.

    But that’s not how government works, is it? Things get chopped up amongst many many parties. People move around. Teams get reshuffled. And when it is unlikely for all the kep players to be of one unified mind…you need rules.

  • #107803

    Michele Costanza
    Participant

    If firefighters don’t perform well on the job, people die. That’s an objective measure.

  • #107801

    Steve Ressler
    Keymaster

    I think this is 100% right on. Not about writing rules but about getting people to follow them.

  • #107799

    Tara*
    Participant

    The problem I see with some of the rules in our agency is that they don’t relate to the reality of the situation. Some rules are, of course, necessary, but others seem to have been created in a vacuum, with no regard to the effect that they will have on our ability to forward the agency’s mission. Other rules start off well, but become so convoluted in their attempt to close up every possible loophole and prevent abuse that they make it nearly impossible to accomplish anything.

  • #107797

    Tracy Kerchkof
    Participant

    +1

  • #107795

    Daniel Honker
    Participant

    I side pretty consistently with the need to trust and empower managers. In any case, I think my fellow Loopers will find this TED Talk quite interesting. The speaker, Barry Schwartz, argues that as a society, our reliance on rules and bureaucracy has whittled away our wisdom and “moral skill”. Essentially, he says that scripts, rules and incentives DO insure against disaster, but they condemn us to mediocrity.

  • #107793

    Michael Lennon
    Participant

    Daniel – you beat me to the punch. This is a GREAT presentation.

  • #107791

    Jenyfer Johnson
    Participant

    As a Hazardous Material & Waste Manager my job is nothing but following rules and regulations. I don’t have to agree with them and, as I explain to others constantly, they don’t always have to make sense, but we all have to follow them. So I tend to have a fair understanding of and respect for regulations and rules that are in place for a GOOD reason.

    But I must chime in with the point that it is unfortunate that too often there are managers/leaders in the workplace that do not have common sense, they cannot separate themselves from their personal vendettas or favoritisms, they fail to manage properly yet are allowed to keep their jobs. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has come across a manager that falls in this category. This is why we NEED to have rules in place to keep people like these from abusing their power more than they already have.

    It’s unfortunate but it’s just a fact of doing business.

  • #107789

    Gary Berg-Cross
    Participant

    Goldsmith’s background on privatizing government activities is relevant to understanding the topic and you can read some of it on Wikipedia. He was elected mayor of Indianapolis in 1991 on a platform of privatizing city services, and immediately set out to put his plan into action. Goldsmith appointed a “Service, Efficiency, and Lower Taxes for Indianapolis Commission” (SELTIC), led by private business leaders, to examine every facet of city government for possible privatization.

    Goldsmith was also chief domestic policy advisor to President George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign and then served as Special Advisor to President Bush on faith-based and not-for-profit initiatives.

    As discussed in a City Limits article called “New Deputy Mayor’s Privatization Push Still Has Critics”:

    “Despite declaring that “my goal is not to lay off city workers,” Goldsmith immediately announced a series of layoffs, as a part of a massive reorganization of city departments, particularly those overseeing construction and public works. Agencies involved in regulatory oversight were a favorite Goldsmith target. The city’s Equal Opportunity Division lost 14 of its 21 employees; the department responsible for buildings code inspections dropped from more than 400 workers to 341. At one point, Goldsmith directed the city’s Health and Hospital Corporation to use health and safety regulations “only after other alternative measures, including market-based environmental protection, are sufficiently explored.” His predecessor as mayor, William Hudnut, later reported that Goldsmith’s deputy mayor declared the new administration’s motto to be: “If it ain’t broke, break it and then fix it.”

    See http://www.citylimits.org/news/articles/4086/new-deputy-mayor-s-privatization-push-still-has-critics

  • #107787

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    I totally agree with Andy! Rules are meant to keep everyone honest and will set apart those who aren’t. In the natural scheme of things, humans are inherently driven by greed and selfishness … both of which we learn (or choose not to learn) to keep in cheque. Rules keep use honest… all of us! But it’simportant to make rules for the masses, not because a few people have stepped over the line.

  • #107785

    Doris Tirone
    Participant

    Totally agree with you, Peter! Making rules to limit those who break them doesn’t make sense. Rules are our boundaries. If we violate those boundaries, consequences (and not more rules) should be imposed. Have we moved, as a society, so far to the left that we don’t understand that? Or is it just easier to practice passive-agression by layering more rules upon those that get broken?

  • #107783

    Peter Sperry
    Participant

    Part of the problem is how we react to rules in our country, often by ignoring them. Newt Gingrich used to tell a story about German vs U.S. speed limits. Back in the 70s when the oil embargo hit, both the U.S. and German governments responed by lowering highway speed limits to unrealisticly slow levels (55 mph in the U.S. and 100 kph in Germany). The German people dutifully obeyed the new speed limit, went to the polls the next election, removed every single politician who had voted for the lower speeds, watched approvingly while the lowered limits were revised upward and went back to driving rationally. Americans on the other hand by and large ignored the new limits, occasionally complained about the resulting congestion, paid fines when they got caught; but otherwise moved on with life with speed limits requiring 55 mph of drivers commonally hitting 80 mph. His point was that you never truly understand the downside of bad rules if you do not actually obey them and unless the public gains that understanding, there will be no real momentum to reform bad rules.

  • #107781

    Peter Sperry
    Participant

    Other lesson — Social security and Medicare may be the third rail of politics in the U.S. but for Germans speed limits and the beer laws take precedence. I like their sense of priorities.

  • #107779

    Gary Berg-Cross
    Participant

    I agree with Harlan that rules are one manifestation of consensus in a cooperative arrangement. One risk of adopting the general principle of discarding rules to give managers more “discretion” is that it just too broad a principle and damages the possibility of mutual agreements. It may throw out the baby with the bath.

    For a variety of reasons we may get non-functional rules but changes needs to be contextualized and targeted where the rules being thrown out can be examined and rationalized.

    In a way this move might devolve to one that tips the balance towards the executive role over the legislative one. We need the proper balance here.

  • #107777

    If we look carefully at the human heart, if given two options that are based on serving one’s self-interest first or giving altruistic service to one’s neighbor, I’m afraid the nod in most cases goes to numero uno.

    Seriously, I believe that humanity is inherently good and will argue fervently that we want to do the right thing…but the ol’ Freudian id is an enormous, often overwhelming energy in our lives.

    Rules, at least, make the id think twice.

  • #107775

    Actually, I would flip this around (and this ties in with “O’Leary and Eggers’ If We Can Put a Man on the Moon”), we need to write BETTER rules (not more of them) such that enforcement just makes sense.

    And this is where government 2.0 comes in: engage citizens more in the process of writing the rules. Bring together the legislators and the implementers of the legislation AND the people who must adhere to that legislation around the same table on the front side…and enforcement becomes, as Harlan points out, a norm of behavior that solidifies in the population because of a sense of group ownership in the established rules.

  • #107773

    Tara*
    Participant

    Wow. What a great speech. Do you think if we could get everyone in the world to watch this, it would inspire global changes? (sigh) Probably not, but the little idealist in my heart will keep dreaming…

  • #107771

    Gary Berg-Cross
    Participant

    As philosophers have said for a while and social scientists add to all the time, people are neither all good (generous) or all bad (greedy etc.) and besides looking out for ourselves and our kin we have empathy and kindness for others. It’s more of a question of what we do about the dynamics of the various tendencies in people and groups. Societies find a need for some standards and some rules say to protect children from abuse. And we have to agree on them. The philosopher Searle calls them social or institutional facts and they are such things as marriage, money, and government, which only exist due to the shared practices and beliefs of a group.

    Some of the complexity of designing a good system and getting agreement on what we value was noted by John Steinbeck in the quote below.

    “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second. “

  • #107769

    Thom
    Participant

    Few rules, and a whole lot more clarity would be a good thing. Its not just the rules but the crazy way they sometimes get implemented blindly. This creates a whole lot of organizational friction that is terribly inefficient. Guidelines can certainly help. Unfortunately writing simple clear guidelines seems to be a huge challenge because we usually insist on doing it by committee…

  • #107767

    Tracy Kerchkof
    Participant

    I don’t think anyone agrees that there should be absolutely no rules, but I do think that some rules are just ridiculous. My personal favorite example is the paperwork reduction act and how it relates to getting feedback on web applications. If I wanted to send a survey to users of my wiki in order to get a better idea on how to prioritize upgrades and development, I would have to go through the ICR process to get permission, which takes 6 mo. to year. But if I sent this survey to only 9 of my 500+users, I would be fine, because someone arbitrarily decided that the magic cut off for the act is 10 people or more. The way we get around this is setting up areas in the wiki where people can leave feedback, and thats ok (?) because we aren’t directly soliciting anyone. But, we get little, if any, feedback this way, so I would like to try engaging the user community directly. But I can’t. I don’t know if this is even the way the act is supposed to be enforced, but that is the way it is enforced at my agency and as a newer employee, I’m quickly brushed off if I start asking too many questions. I’ve eventually found 1 or 2 people that I can talk to about these issues that can actually help me, after 1.5-2 years of trying. And thats just for one rule. Most other people would just give up, and nothing changes, or they quit, and then everyone wonders why retention is so bad. Now, I’m sure there is some good reason for ICR’s and the Act, and if the ICR process didn’t take so long, it might not be such a pain. Which is why I I’m not necessarily in favor of less rules, but an honest commitment to better implementation and enforcement of the rules that we already have.

    And, I can see where Goldsmith is coming from on this. I read the Indianapolis pothole case study, and like many similar case studies, the conclusion was that once you put private companies under the same set of rules public agencies have to abide by (level of benefits provided and reporting requirements, for example), private companies are usually no cheaper or better. So the conclusion a lot of people, including Goldsmith, have made is that the key to reducing government spending is removing these barriers.

  • #107765

    Gary Berg-Cross
    Participant

    We along with other primates are intensely competitive creatures, but not mean, selfish brutes. In accounts by scientists that study primates the social-cognitive skills that distinguish then from other mammals evolved mainly in the context of competitive social interactions. This why primate social cognition has been characterized by researchers like de Waal as primate politics or Machiavellian intelligence (Byrne & Whiten). But that is only part of the story. While some primate species show their most sophisticated social-cognitive skills in competitive rather than in cooperative situations it is not true for human studies. Humans evolved skills and motivations for collaborating with one another in social activities involving shared goals and joint intentions/attention. The popular theory (evolutionary Psych) explaining this is that individuals who could collaborate together more effectively in various social activities came to have a selective advantage and produced more off-spring.

    In the journal Science several months ago, the psychologist Joseph Henrich and co-workers reported on a cross-cultural study of social behaviors from 15 diverse populations. They found that people’s propensities to behave kindly to strangers and to punish unfairness are strongest in large-scale communities with market economies, where such norms are essential to the smooth functioning of trade. Henrich and his colleagues concluded that much of the morality that humans possess is a consequence of the culture in which they are raised, not their innate capacities.

  • #107763

    Gary Berg-Cross
    Participant

    I think that Andrew Krzmarzick’s recent discussion of “Augustine’s Law: Good Ideas Poorly Executed Are Useless” has some relevant parallels to good rules being poorly executed sometimes because their original intent may have been lost or entangled with other things.

  • #107761

    John O’Leary
    Participant

    Goldsmith’s article refers to the progressive era rules regarding government operations — things like civil service and procurement rults. It doesn’t say anything about regulations on the private sector, which are very different. The question is: are the rules that limit public employee’s discretion excessive?

  • #107759

    Gary Berg-Cross
    Participant

    Goldsmith wants to unwind the improvements in checks and balances that were instituted in response to the political corruption during the Tammany Hall era. But clearly civil service reform did things like preventing people from hiring their buddies which were part of that corruption. To executives like . Goldsmith, rules may be slowing down the kinds of changes he wants for New York City government, but rules are often there for a practical reason – they are needed, because people are apt to have lapses in integrity or fall to temptatation.
    And there is a bit opportunity for personal gains when we privatize government services. There remains the temptation to award government contracts to “well-connected friends or political allies who can do favors for you. All understandable, but probably not best practices in the long run.

    People have found various ways around the checks and balances of rules and so they grow more complex in an arms race. But who wants to give into that which leads to corruption by power?

    So we should seek a balanced way to manage the competition between corruption possibilities and complex rules. Less acceptance of such corruptions would require fewer rules.

  • #107757

    Gary Berg-Cross
    Participant

    I disagree. Reality doesn’t work that way. NASA engineers have as many rules to make a mission effective as they need to achieve a result. That is there are no arbitrary boundaries we can draw without risking the mission.

    We may view social reality the same way. Drawing boundaries is often a group convenience, but this can be a short-term gain at the expense of a larger goal. So it is important to test ones ideas to see if adding or subtracting rules goes in the right direction as opposed to use some arbitrary criteria.

  • #107755

    John O’Leary
    Participant

    What a challenging idea! I might modify it a tiny bit: 1/10th the number of rules and 10 times the level of conformance–which can come through stricter enforcement, better education, rules that are clearer and easier to follow, etc.

  • #107753

    Daniel Honker
    Participant

    There’s a lot of discussion going on about the need for more or less rules, but as many people have pointed out, those both miss the point. Gary and a few others mentioned that rules are manifestations of group consensus. But they’re not the only manifestation. Schwartz is saying in this presentation that role models, stories of virtuous people, and other forms of group consensus actually CAN be reliable and useful in guiding people’s actions.

  • #107751

    Tracy Kerchkof
    Participant

    Finally got around to watching this. Great speech, thanks for sharing!

  • #107749

    Tara*
    Participant

    This is absolutely true. As a newer employee myself, I have definitely run into the brush off when questioning “traditions”. Maybe the problem is not so much the amount of rules, as the staunch belief that there’s no need to re-evaluate them as things change. We tend to become entrenched in “the way we’ve always done it” and it seems easier to trudge forward with a semi-broken system than to stop, look around, and figure out how we can fix it.

  • #107747

    Victoria A. Runkle
    Participant

    Agree strongly with this comment. It seems that many of the challenges are due to managing the current rules and not creating new rules because someone “found a loophole” and plowed through it.

  • #107745

    Thom
    Participant

    Agreed, need to keep challenging the rules and if they don’t make sense change them!

  • #107743

    Thom
    Participant

    We have a similar rule in Canada around Public Opinion Research that causes the same kind of nonsense you describe Tracy, I think its a control thing.

  • #107741

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    What you describe illustrates the difference between “rules” and levels of approval or accountability.

    It IS possible to have tons of rules that let you know what to do and not do, but nothing that gets in your way or impedes your ability to plan and do your work. What does make it a royal P.I.T.A. is when there is layer upon layer of approval to obtain. Those are not so much rules that permit one to act both wisely and autonomously, but rather co-operative hurdles that are both exhausting and time-consuming.

    I like to tinker with electronics in my spare time. There are a bazillion rules I have to observe, but if I know them all, I can simply integrate them into my actions and work efficiently. I don’t have to wait for someone to verify that I have observed the rule.

    There is the difference.

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