I need a name for this bureaucratic phenomena
December 3, 2013 6:39 PM   Subscribe

Here's the background: I'm working on a project that will make it easier to issue state and federal permits for certain traditional indigenous land uses here in Hawai`i. There are already 17 federal and state permits, for example, that cultural practitioners need to secure in order to restore a native fishpond. We intend to streamline this. We have a lot of both community and political support, and a lot of people want to help out to make it successful.

And there's the problem: Many government workers' idea of 'helping' is to suggest more regulations and recommended practices. The bird people have ideas to protect birds, the coral people to protect coral, the historic people to preserve the ruins, the clean water people to protect the water, and so on.

These are good people with good intentions, but 100 good intentions taken all together can complicate rather than simplify a program. Even the seventeen regulations we're already dealing with now are each, individually, perfectly valid regulations. It's just the sum total that make life difficult for practitioners.

Is there a name for this phenomena? Because if it has been named and studied, then it will be easier for us to address it.

I'm open to non-English sources.
posted by kanewai to Law & Government (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe: Tyranny of small decisions
posted by unknowncommand at 7:00 PM on December 3, 2013

Perhaps you're looking for something else, but I think Red Tape fits the bill pretty well.
posted by alms at 7:23 PM on December 3, 2013

Best answer: It's like a kiawe thicket; when you move one way to avoid a thorn, you get snagged up on more.
posted by rtha at 7:50 PM on December 3, 2013

Republicans call it overregulation.
posted by snarfles at 8:02 PM on December 3, 2013

Best answer: Bureaucratic accretion?

Also related to cruft.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:50 PM on December 3, 2013

Best answer: You're describing 'silos', the phenomenon when different parts of a bureaucracy (or private firm, workplace, or any kind of large organisation) divides attention or work into sectors, each of which only deals with its own problems or defines a problem in a certain way.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:50 PM on December 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Too many cooks in the kitchen :-)
posted by Schielisque at 9:17 PM on December 3, 2013

I think you're asking the wrong question. This is not a bureaucratic phenomena that you are dealing with, it is simply people doing their jobs. They are not paid to help promote traditional indigenous land uses, they are paid to protect the existing environment and that is exactly what they are doing.

In the end your agenda may be in conflict with theirs - that is implicit in the requirement for 17 permits. From their POV just because it's traditional or indigenous doesn't make it automatically benign. So while they are been 'supportive' it's within their own context, which necessarily means insuring first and foremost that what they are charged with protecting is protected.

So, you need to approach this from their viewpoint. For example if the context becomes how to increase compliance with the current regulations by streamlining the permit process then that aligns with their agenda and you are likely to be more successful.

With regulations in the USA I have generally found that the rules are there for good reasons. They are made by smart people to achieve worthy aims. Sometimes they are onerous but often because the thing they are design to prevent is pretty bad. I'm not sure if it's your intent, but the tone I get from your question is that there are already too many rules and streamlining the process is about getting less rules. This is unlikely to be a successful strategy (unless you can get elected of the government - see GW Bush and the EPA). A better strategy is about how to make it easier for people to comply with all the existing rules.
posted by Long Way To Go at 11:11 PM on December 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is feature creep, but for law.

I don't know exactly the right one or two word phrase to describe it.

I do know that if you're trying to sell legislation that addresses this problem, in a liberal state, that rhetoric really matters.

Streamlining. Making it easier for good people to do good things. Cutting red tape. Those are the stock punchlines. Don't get too wonky.

The other thing that I recommend is to find horror stories of well meaning responsible people getting thwarted in their attempts to do good things. Are there catch-22s? Are there situations where government workers have sent somebody to five offices in the same day, to no avail? Tell those stories. Hone them, make them concise. Go for John Stewart-esque dark humor about the futility.

Also, find examples of people who gave up and just did whatever they wanted without getting any permits. Nothing bugs bureaucrats more than thinking they made so many rules that people decided the best solution was to follow none of them.

Above all, create empathy in your audience. Everyone has a red-tape horror story, even bureaucrats. Make them remember their own red tape horror story. Make them want to tell you theirs. And when they do, take time to listen and bond over it.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 12:49 AM on December 4, 2013

This is an issue that impinges in my field, its not necessarily over regulation but it may be that the regulation is overly bureaucratic. The general solution mooted in my field is the 'one-stop shop', ie, a way to tick all the regulatory boxes through one customer facing agency.
posted by biffa at 2:49 PM on December 4, 2013

Response by poster: A lot of these help explain how we got where we are, so thanks! They'll help us with our narrative.

I'm looking for something a little bit different though - more what happens when people want to help (we already have a lot of empathy and support), but the only way they know how to is through suggesting more rather than less.

I focused on bureaucrats above, but we are experiencing this from academia and activist groups too. It's not hurting the program at all; rather, it would be nice to be able to discuss our experiences as part of our meta-narrative.

I'm convinced I read a good take on the subject once, but I cannot recall at all if it was in an essay, in a book, or even from college.

It's like a kiawe thicket
I will be borrowing this analogy! We started off only looking at combing three permit processes. Little did we know.

In the end your agenda may be in conflict with theirs - that is implicit in the requirement for 17 permits. We're actually not looking at conflict in this case, which is rare in my job.

Republicans call it overregulation.
Small tangent: After ten years in the field, I understand a lot of the Republican critique about environmental laws. Generally, not just with this project, it's not even red tape that is the real problem. With so many moving parts, all it takes is one single person to be lazy, overworked, a jerk, or dictatorial for a whole project to grind to a halt. We see this with 'development' as well as with restoration projects. My issue is that I vehemently disagree with Republican 'solutions,' which tend to involve destroying the system rather than fixing it.
posted by kanewai at 4:51 PM on December 4, 2013

Perhaps this is an example of Maslow's Hammer (aka "law of the instrument"): if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The various specialists you talk to are trained to recognize and manage the importance of their particular area of concern. This is what they do. It's their hammer, so to speak. You don't see your project as a nail, but of course they do.
posted by alms at 6:58 AM on December 5, 2013

« Older My Timeshare Albatross   |   need help surviving the worst breakup I've had Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.