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Why bureaucratic Red Tape infuriates us all - and what to do about it.


A key frustration both for clients of public institutions as well as those who work in or with them, is bureaucratic red tape or "excessive bureaucracy".


A stated aim of many reform initiatives of both national and international public organizations is to minimize the bureaucratic red tape by reducing the number or complexity of rules and facilitating faster decision making and therefore bureaucratic responses. This seems logical at first glance, but then

often turns out to be a lot more difficult in practice.

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That's why the 2019 study of "Emotional Responses to Bureaucratic Red Tape" by researchers in Germany is so interesting for reform practitioners and administrative personnel. By studying what is most frustrating and how those negative emotions play out when people are faced bureaucratic processes, this study suggests additional interventions that can help minimize the negative effects of bureaucracy. The study shows that eliminating dysfunctional red tape and unnecessary rules and processes is the best solution.


But it also shows that people are more frustrated with excessive administrative burdens than they are with administrative delays. So making a process faster may not always be better if it subjects clients to more forms or steps in the process. The study also shows that if clients understand the purpose or value of a rule or process, it can reduce some of their negative emotions, depending on how it is explained.


For administrators and those designing business process improvements, it raises some interesting questions for consideration:

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1. Do the proposed process improvement interventions achieve faster decisionmaking by making clients do some of the work that administrators previously did? This is likely to lead to greater frustration by clients that will be highlighted in feedback loops, and begs the question on whether this will be perceived as a genuine process improvement.


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2. Do your staff implementing the rules (both old or new) understand the purpose of those rules? Are they able to communicate that to clients with emotional intelligence? If you're not sure, your first step as a manager or leader is ensuring you systematically communicate the purpose of rules. Those designing reform or business improvement processes should consider building in information and training interventions to your reform project.


For more information, read:

Hattke, Fabian et al. "Emotional Responses to Bureaucratic Red Tape." Public Administration Review 80, no. 1 (2019), pp. 53-63

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