Federal employees shouldn't be slaves to rules

Managers need to counteract employee perceptions that their job consists only of following the rules

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

I teach an executive education class in which we discuss the pros and cons of designing organizations that rely heavily on rules, as opposed to those in which frontline employees are empowered to make decisions about the best course of action. Rules do have virtues, particularly for wielding control and easing coordination across organizational units. They can also represent a useful codification of knowledge so people don’t need to reinvent the wheel. However, they can create problems because people often become psychologically dependent on them — a disease that organizational theorists call “rule worship.”

During a recent discussion of those issues, one class participant said he often heard employees claim that the rules required them to behave in certain ways. But when they were pressed to cite the rules in question, the employees were unable to point to any rule with the alleged requirements. I then asked the class, made up of GS-15 federal managers and their military equivalents, how many of them had experienced the same situation. Nearly every one of the 70-odd participants raised his or her hand. I was taken aback by just how prevalent it was.

That perception is a problem. Organizational scholar Henry Mintzberg has written that rules are intended to specify a minimum standard of acceptable performance. But in organizations with many rules, employees can easily get the signal that following the rules is their entire job. After they’ve followed the rules, they don’t need to do anything more.

I saw that attitude in action when I first started working on procurement issues in the government in 1993. Agencies were still mostly buying commercial software in shrink-wrapped individual packages when large companies were saving money by buying enterprise licenses. Why was the government doing that? Because nobody wanted to break the rules. The software was bid openly and competitively, and the government got the lowest price anybody paid for shrink-wrapped software. But that wasn’t an intelligent business practice, and no one seemed to see it as part of their job to go beyond the rules and ask if that buying strategy made sense.

Supervisors and managers who work for organizations that are very rule-bound — which describes many agencies — need to take steps to counteract employee perceptions that their jobs consist only of following the rules.

When employees claim that the rules require something and it turns out there is no such rule, managers should raise such examples at staff meetings — of course, without embarrassing the employee who made the claim — and use the stories to point out how easy it is to assume there are more rules than there are. Managers should ask employees why certain rules exist. If the only answer is that “we’ve always done it this way,” there’s a problem. And managers should specifically discuss and reward situations in which employees treat the rules as a floor, not a ceiling, for their behavior.

Agencies should also review their rulebooks to make a distinction between rules that have a control purpose — often, though not always, expressed as “thou shalt not” — and those that try to provide useful information for employees about how to do their jobs better. The former must be mandatory, but whenever possible, the latter should be moved from binding rules to suggestions or advice.


About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve


  • Defense
    Ryan D. McCarthy being sworn in as Army Secretary Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo credit: Sgt. Dana Clarke/U.S. Army)

    Army wants to spend nearly $1B on cloud, data by 2025

    Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said lack of funding or a potential delay in the JEDI cloud bid "strikes to the heart of our concern."

  • Congress
    Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) at the Hack the Capitol conference Sept. 20, 2018

    Jim Langevin's view from the Hill

    As chairman of of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committe and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin is one of the most influential voices on cybersecurity in Congress.

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.