By Steve Kelman

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Think the government is bureaucratic? Read on.

As regular readers of this blog know, one topic that I frequently teach about is the proliferation of rules in government organizations. It was my view while working on contracting issues while in government – and it is my view as a scholar and teacher about management – that, while rules often serve valuable functions in organizations, government organizations are frequently too rule-bound, creating problems both for customer satisfaction and for performance.
In class, I often discuss what features of a government environment – in particular media and political scrutiny that put more emphasis on avoiding scandal than on achieving great success – tend to make government more rule-bound than private companies. In executive education, managers frequently discuss ways to reduce the negative effect of rules, such as being aggressive about using exception authorities when the rule doesn’t fit.
But I also always teach that many of the problems we see in managing government organizations often exist in the private sector as well, so we in government should not flagellate ourselves too much.
I have recently experienced a dramatic example of the truth of this observation as a customer of Sovereign Bank. It would give the worst of government bureaucracy and inflexibility a run for its money.
I have kept most of my money-market cash and certificates of deposit in the Harvard Square branch of Sovereign Bank for a while. Last year, the bank manager suggested I start using Sovereign for my checking, and for a number of reasons, I was tempted by his suggestion. However, I did have a worry, which was that I wanted funds to be transferred directly from my money market account to any new checking account whenever money was needed to cover a check, and I was concerned that regulations limited the number of withdrawals I could make each month. However, the manager assured me this would not create a problem, so I proceeded to spend a fair amount of time transferring a large number of automatic payments (e.g. credit card and utility bills) to the new checking account.
Soon the previous Harvard Square manager left, and soon I began receiving notices that I had made too many withdrawals a month from my money market fund, and that this wasn’t allowed. I explained to the new manager what I had been told and the amount of time I had spent transferring automatic payments out of the account (he already knew I was quite a good customer). I suggested the following solution: I would transfer a sum from money market into checking at the beginning of each month that would pay most or all of my checks, and they would give my checking account the same rate of interest as the money market, so I could just leave funds lying there for a while.
Some time later the manager got back to me and said my request had been turned down by a regional manager – Sovereign’s rule was not to offer interest on checking accounts.
I said to the branch manager to ask the regional manager to go up further in the bank to the level of somebody authorized to make an exception to the rule. The rule is not a law of nature or a government regulation. Somewhere within Sovereign Bank there was somebody authorized to make an exception. If it had to go to the CEO, take it there, I added -- somewhat rhetorically.
Well, I’ve now heard back from the regional manager. Sovereign has no interest-paying checking account “product,” he told me, so my request couldn’t be granted, no matter how good a customer I was. Yes, I understood they had no such “product,” that was why I was asking them to make an exception to their rule; if they had an interest-bearing “product,” there would be no need to make an exception. We went back and forth with him repeating “no product” in a way reminding one of the worst stereotype of an unresponsive bureaucrat.
I finally said that if he could not authorize an exception to their rule about no interest, I was asking him to take the decision up to a higher level of Sovereign Bank, where somebody was authorized to make an exception. He was authorized to make an exception, he said, but he chose not to do so. Why did he choose not to do so, I asked? Because Sovereign Bank had no interest-bearing “product.”

Ugh, he can’t make an exception to the rule because doing so would violate the rule! I blurted out, “I understand!  That’s why I am asking for an exception to your rule.”
Quickly I realized we were in a do-loop; the regional manager started repeating something about wanting to send me a communication that put our conversation in writing, so he could “memorialize” that we had had a conversation, again a behavior more bureaucratic than most government bureaucrats.
This actually reminded me of an experience I once had while in government. I was chairing a meeting of the FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) Council that was discussing rewriting Part 15 of the regulation. As I led a discussion of a certain possible change, I could watch a particularly conservative Defense Department staffer becoming more and more agitated, redder and redder in the face, until finally he blurted out, “You can’t make that change! It’s contrary to the FAR!” As calmly as I could, I responded: “What we are doing now is rewriting the FAR.”
Our goal in government should be to be better than my Sovereign Bank regional manager. But then again, I fear this is far, far too low a standard.

Posted on Aug 14, 2012 at 4:47 PM


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