By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: What Teddy Roosevelt can teach us about rules

I recently had my annual discussion in my public management class for first-year Master's students at the Kennedy School about the virtues and flaws of making extensive use of rules or standard operating procedures to design organizations. (The discussion is based on an effort by the Forest Service during the early 1990s to cut back on its internal rules and procedures, which included an experiment in which the Forest Service offices in one region were given budget money in a "big bucket," rather than traditional budget line items.)

Basically, we talk about the virtues of rules as a way of communicating information about how to accomplish a task, so that employees don't need to reinvent the wheel (as well as their virtues as a control and compliance tool when we are afraid of bad things happening in an organization). And we talk about the problems rules create in reducing employee motivation to think -- and to do anything else besides making sure they follow the rules.

Last year when I had this discussion, I asked the students about the rules they had to follow on their first job out of college: Were there too many, too few or the right number? Last year, more students had said too few rules and that they didn't feel they had enough guidance about how to do their jobs.

This year, a student told the class about her experience working in a Middle Eastern country in which there were no fixed procedures for getting a driver's license. Somebody seeking a license typically would have lunch with an official in the appropriate government office, and that person would decide how the license would be granted in the individual's case. (The student didn't discuss this, but I'm guessing that cash payments were part of the discussion.)

The students, though, were also very vociferous about the shortcomings of rules. In particular, they felt that an environment bound by too many rules left them with no real reason to try hard or to go an extra mile -- just follow the rules, keep your nose clean, don't bother to think.

Some students said that they themselves had experienced this in their jobs. Given that we're talking about very talented young people, any organization that sends a signal to them that they should turn their minds off is losing an opportunity to improve organizational performance. One of the students pointed out that rule-bound organizations tend to attract people who don't care about achieving outstandingly, while repelling high performers.

This year when I asked about the students’ first year jobs, I asked what sector they had worked in. Among the students who felt their jobs had too many rules, government/military employment was over-represented, while among those feeling their job had had too few rules, non-profits were over-represented. (The private sector was not over-represented on either reply.)

Government tends to be excessively rule-bound because of the excessive interest in the virtues of control and compliance, despite the performance-dampening disadvantages. As Teddy Roosevelt said a century ago, "You cannot give an official the power to do right without at the same time giving him the power to do wrong." Too often in government, we're so worried about avoiding the bad that we ignore the costs of foregoing the good.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 15, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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