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What Is Red Tape?

Biot Report #157: December 24, 2004 Printer Friendly

The term “red tape” derives from “the ribbon once used to tie up legal documents in
England”, according to Herbert Kaufman in his slim airy little book titled “Red Tape: Its
Origins, Uses and Abuses.”* The idea for this book was not Kaufman’s own, which
shows in its execution. In his foreword, Bruce MacLaury, president of the Brookings
Institution in 1977, tells us that the late Kermit Gordon, yet another president of the
Brookings Institution, “sired” [?] the book because “there was no serious book on
government red tape. Satires, laments, denunciations, yes. But no analytical treatment of
where red tape comes from and what can—and cannot--be done about it. Gordon thought
the gap in the literature ought to be corrected;” hence the birth of this anemic work on
one of the great issues of modern civilization.

Kaufman notifies the reader early on that “[t]here isn’t much serious literature on red
tape,” which lowered my expectations of what was to come, which probably was his
intent. The origin of the term “red tape”, however, is very interesting even when
presented in Kaufman’s prose:

“Because the common law gives great weight to precedent, every judicial decision must
have been preceded by a thorough search of the records for guidance and authority. Such
a system presumes that records of every transaction are punctiliously filed and cross-
filed. We may surmise, therefore, that legions of clerks and lawyers spent a good deal of
their time tying and untying the ribbon-bound folders. Meanwhile, citizens and
administrative officers trying to get action must have fretted and fumed while they waited
for the meticulous minions to complete their patient unwrapping and rewrapping. And
they must have exploded in outrage when after all that, action was blocked on grounds of
some obscure ancient decision or, still, worse, because no unequivocal precedent could
be found. Hence the emergence of red tape as a despised symbol. The ribbon has long
since disappeared, but the hated conditions and practices it represents continue, keeping
the symbol alive.” (Pp.1-2)

Kaufman’s brief perusal of the literature resulted in his locating several dated but
nonetheless pithy commentaries on red tape, which quickly reach the heart of the matter:

1. “Red tape is that part of my business you don’t know anything about.”

Paul H. Appleby: “Big Democracy.” Knopf, 1945, chapter 6.

2. “One man’s red tape is another man’s system.”

Dwight Waldo, “Government by Procedure,” in Fritz Morstein Marx, ed., Elements of

Public Administration (Prentice-Hall, 1946).
3. “Red tape as a social problem cannot be explained unless the frame of reference
employed by the individual who uses this label is understood.”

Bureaucracy: Red Tape and

Other Negative By-products
Inside the organization, employees live with the red tape and some very
negative by-products of the bureaucratic form.

When employees are asked to give examples of things they think of as being
bureaucratic, they frequently cite the following:

• Each department has its own agenda, and departments don’t cooperate to help
other departments get the job done.

• The head of a department feels responsible first for protecting the department, its
people and its budget, even before helping to achieve the organization’s mission.

• There is political in-fighting, with executives striving for personal advancement and

• Ideas can be killed because they come from the "wrong" person. Ideas will be
supported because the are advanced by the "right" person.

• People in their own department spend much of their time protecting their
department’s "turf."

• People in other departments spend so much time protecting their "turf" that they
don’t have time to do the work they are responsible to do.

• They are treated as though they can’t be trusted.

• They are treated as though they don’t have good judgment.

• They are treated as though they won’t work hard unless pushed.

• Their work environment includes large amounts of unhealthy stress.

• The tendency of the organization is to grow top-heavy, while the operating units of
the organization tend to be too lean.

• Promotions are more likely to be made on the basis of politics, rather than actual
achievements on the job.
• Top managers are dangerously ill-informed and insulated from what is happening
on the front lines or in "the field."

• Information is hoarded or kept secret and used as the basis for power.

• Data is used selectively, or distorted to make performance look better than it really

• Internal communications to employees are distorted to reflect what the

organization would like to be, rather than what it really is.

• Mistakes and failures are denied, covered up or ignored.

• Responsibility for mistakes and failure tends to be denied, and where possible,
blame is shifted to others.

• Decisions are made by larger and larger groups, so no one can be held

• Decisions are made based on the perceived desires of superiors, rather than
concern for mission achievement.

• Policies, practices and procedures tend to grow endlessly and to be followed more
and more rigidly.

• Senior managers become so insulated from the realities of the front line that they
may use stereotypical thinking and out-of-date experience in making decisions.

• Quantitative measurements are favored over qualitative measurements, so the

concentration is on quantities of output, with less and less concern for quality of

• Both employees and customers are treated more as numbers than people. Personal
issues and human needs are ignored or discounted.

SINGAPORE: India, Indonesia and the Philippines have Asia’s most inefficient
bureaucracies, with red tape a constant blight to citizens and deterrent to foreign
investment, a survey said on Wednesday.

Regional financial centers Singapore and Hong Kong have the most efficient
bureaucracies, according to the survey of expatriate business executives by the Political
and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC).

Government bureaucracies in some Asian countries have become “power centers” in their
own right, allowing them to effectively resist efforts toward reforms by politicians and
appointed officials, the Hong Kong-based firm said.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s failure to carry out reforms
contributed to the resignation last month of respected Finance Minister Sri Mulyani
Indrawati, who accepted a senior position at the World Bank, PERC said.

“Despite President Susilo’s strong election mandate, he lacks the power to really shake
up Indonesia’s bureaucracy,” the consultancy added.

Ranking 12 key countries and territories on a scale from one to 10, with 10 as the worst
possible score, the business executives in the survey rated India as having the region’s
most inefficient bureaucracy.

India had a score of 9.41, followed by Indonesia (8.59), the Philippines (8.37), Vietnam
(8.13) and China (7.93).

Malaysia was in sixth place from the bottom with a score of 6.97, followed by Taiwan
(6.60), Japan (6.57), South Korea (6.13) and Thailand (5.53).

Singapore was ranked has having the most efficient bureaucracy, with a score of 2.53,
followed by Hong Kong with 3.49.

PERC said that 1,373 middle and senior expatriate executives took part in the survey
carried out earlier this year.

Singapore was also No. 1 and Hong Kong was in third place globally in the World
Bank’s latest survey on the ease of doing business, which covered 183 economies.

In India, “politicians frequently promise to reform and revitalize the Indian bureaucracy,
but they have been ineffective in doing so—mainly because the civil service is a power
center in its own right,” PERC said.

Dealing with India’s bureaucracy “can be one of the most frustrating experiences for any
Indian, let alone a foreign investor,” it added.

Bureaucratic red tape is both a “serious problem” in China and India, “but the differences
in the political systems of these two countries have made inertia much worse in India
than in China,” PERC said.

In the Philippines, the government “goes through the motions” of addressing problems of
bureaucratic red tape “but nothing has really made a dent in the problem,” it noted.

“Illegal fixing is well-entrenched in the Philippine bureaucracy,” it said, referring to

people called “fixers” who offer to facilitate transactions with government offices for a
fee and often in collaboration with corrupt employees.

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