We are so eager, as a body politic, to eliminate the possibility that public servants will do anything wrong that we make it virtually impossible for them to do anything right. –Lisbeth Shorr

When people in the private sector complain of federal government-imposed red tape, they should count themselves lucky: Nothing the government does to businesses compares to what it does to itself. Civil servants are subjected to ever-mounting procedural guidelines, audits, oversight and rules that make it increasingly difficult for them to do their jobs. The younger ones had hoped that the Obama Administration would make it easier for the federal government to function, but the older ones knew that the march of rising paperwork and oversight has gone on nearly unbroken across administrations for decades.

In her thought-provoking book Common Purpose, Lisbeth Shorr reviewed most of the major theories of bureaucratic paralysis, including the seminal writings of James Q. Wilson. Whether you agree with her or not, grappling with her analysis is an intellectual treat. But even the most erudite conceptual analysis should leave room for the role of primitive emotions, which also contribute to an over-regulated and therefore frequently inert civil service. I believe the key emotion at play is fear, of two forms.

Fear of the Federal Government

Much of the U.S. public now sees the federal government as a malign, dreaded influence in their lives. Some conservative politicians share this perspective and work hard to fan such popular fears. Meanwhile some liberal politicians see any allowance of discretion and autonomy by civil servants as an invitation to disparate treatment based on race, sex, class, disability etc. These two camps make common cause to tie down the federal government with as many rules as possible. Each group thereby gets something it wants: The government becomes ineffectual, validating the public service haters, and it is non-discriminatory in its operations (because it’s barely operating at all) which pleases those striving for equal treatment under the law. I have railed against the quality of service provided at my local DMV, but I have to admit it does not discriminate: the service is atrocious across the board irrespective of race, color or creed.

Of course the federal government and its employees have done and will always do some wrong and stupid things, making oversight essential for democracy. But there should be some sense of proportion rather than the current situation, in which behind a $100 million anti-theft compliance program may be a federal employee who walked off with a number 2 pencil and a box of paperclips in the Eisenhower Administration.

The Fear Inside

The other type of fear that produces a process-encumbered government exists within the civil service itself. Some federal workers fear being punished for doing the right thing, some for doing the wrong thing, and some for, well, doing anything.

I led federal government organizations twice in my career, about a decade apart. Though the two organizations were of roughly similar size in terms of budget and personnel, I would estimate that the amount of time I spent filling out forms had tripled by the time I started my second stint as a manager. Here is a representative anecdote:

My assistant comes into my office near the end of the day and hands me a stack of forms. Every single career employee, contractor, temp, post-doctoral fellow, volunteer etc. has had to sign a statement attesting that they will be responsible with their thumb drive and that they understand how they will be punished severely if they make a mistake (e.g., misplace the dang thing). Now someone higher in the governmental chain (Viz. me) must counter-sign to assert that these are all good persons and true whose human frailties have been sufficiently threatened out of them.

“There are about 100 forms here and I don’t know most of these people”, I whinge.

“I know”, says my assistant, “but someone has to be the responsible signer”.

“All right” I say, “let’s set up meetings so I at least know who these people are”.

“These forms have to be done in an hour”, she sighs. “I just got them today”.

“And if I don’t sign them then it’s my neck, right”?

“As usual” she says.

So I sign, accepting liability for things I can’t control (this seemed to characterize a plurality of the paperwork I did as a government manager). Higher-up, some other poor devil has to attest that me and countless other people s/he doesn’t know have done a thorough job ensuring that still other people they themselves don’t know will not lose a thumb drive. If even one thumb drive goes astray among the thousands and thousands that will be issued, we can all be fired or sued or both.

Some civil servants cope with the fear by simply immersing themselves in process. Ensuring (and double-checking) that every process in ye olde regulatory handbook is followed to the letter can literally fill up their days. They will not get anything substantive done, but neither will they get into trouble.

Is It Hopeless?

The one break in the otherwise inexorable rise of federal government paperwork occurred during the Clinton Administration. Al Gore’s underappreciated “Re-inventing Government” initiative created some space for innovative federal managers to streamline process burdens on their own agencies and their agency’s customers. The star of the administration in this respect was Dr. Ken Kizer, the VA Undersecretary of Health. As is appropriate, he is best-known for the major improvements in quality and accessibility of health care he implemented in the VA (See “The Best Care Anywhere”), but he also deserves plaudits for being a remorseless killer of useless government paperwork.

When he assumed office the VA had piled up about 4,000 forms over the years, many of them long and complex (e.g., the ones that veterans use to apply for benefits). He eliminated 72% of them outright and automated most of the rest. Knowing government, I have no doubt that he was warned that without VA Official Form 40-B-th.xss/657, disaster would ensue and he would be canned because after all, we have always had VA Official Form 40-B-th.xss/657, what would we do without VA Official Form 40-B-th.xss/657?

What terrible consequences ensued when Kizer eliminated VA Official Form 40-B-th.xss/657 and its 3000 cousins?: Nada. Zilch. Bupkis. This was in retrospect a testament to the waste and inefficiency that had gone on before: Imagine how many million hours VA employees and veterans had spent filling out, certifying, double-checking, key coding and filing away all those useless forms. The paperwork was the accumulated detritus of prior eras which the civil service was simply too scared to throw away.

Kizer, now out of office, told me yesterday that “there is a long tradition of politicians publicly drubbing and humiliating ‘bureaucrats’ for making errors. This is one of the major reasons why it is so hard for government agencies to innovate. Not to state the obvious, but to be innovative there has to be a tolerance for some amount of ‘mistakes’.”

The easiest way for a fearful government manager not to make a ‘mistake’ is not to do anything new. Put your head down, don’t ask questions and do your paperwork and compliance trainings. If that is what we want from our government, then we should keep on doing what we are doing. But if want a dynamic and responsive government, we should be supporting political leaders who are willing to let the civil service breath again.

Postscript: Nothing I have said here represents the official view of any federal government agency that I have worked for or with (even those that secretly agree with me).

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama Administration. @KeithNHumphreys