Monday, 8 February 2010

Red Tape

Red tape is a little bit like sin – everyone's against it in the abstract, but not necessarily so certain when it comes to the specifics. For politicians, it's far too easy to make a glib commitment to abolishing red tape (and, yes, I know that some of my lot have done it as well), but I'm not sure it's always a terribly meaningful statement.

As a fresh young systems analyst, I was designing a new computer system and having enormous difficulty duplicating one of the reports being produced by a clerk in the engineering department. I sat down with her and looked on in some awe at the processes involved in producing the report, taking a full two days every month.

So I asked what happened to the report then, and was shown the drawer in the filing cabinet where it was stored every month. But who looks at it, I wanted to know. The answer was that nobody looked at it, but about three years previously, the director had asked for the information and it wasn't available, so they had continued to prepare it every month, just in case he ever asked for it again.

Unnecessary and irrelevant clerical activity – that's one of the things which most people think of when they talk about red tape. And I'm sure that lots of organisations have examples of something similar to that I described above. The other favourite is 'unnecessary rules and regulations'. But how much of what is so readily dismissed as 'red tape' really falls into those sorts of categories?

I'd hazard a guess that the answer is 'not as much as people think'. Far more often, one person's red tape is another person's protection.

I've heard some employers, particularly, complaining about the burden of red tape on their businesses. Things like European Directives about Environmental Protection, or Working Hours. Things like Maternity Pay, and discrimination legislation. Of course it would be so much easier for companies to compete with the rest of the world if they didn't have to worry about treating their staff fairly or safeguarding the environment around them.

But that isn't what I'd call red tape.

Jack Straw got into trouble recently for suggesting that some police officers would prefer to sit at desks doing paperwork than getting out and solving crimes. He made his point in an unfortunate and cack-handed fashion. The Tories love to talk about freeing police from red tape, and seized on Straw's remarks. Of course, life would be easier for the police if they didn't have to record details of the people they stop and search for instance. But it would be a lot harder to deal with suggestions of bias or prejudice in the way that the individuals being stopped are selected, or about heavy-handed policing.

That isn't what I'd call red tape either.

So, like everyone else, I'm against sin. But before I try and abolish it, I'd like to make sure that it really is sinful.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

Shock ,Horror - I entirely agree with your direction of this piece.
As a nipper I had to contribute to a Board Report each month on what projections I foresore over the coming month .I wrote "Mickey Mouse will die" Nothing happened and I stopped filling in that report from that day on.
PMQs tend to generate massive work in data collection ,in case some backbencher asks stupid question like "How many left handed fush levers are in National Health lavatories???.
In defence of business I would say that politicians living in their Alice in Wonderland life tend to produce regulations that are too remote and simply not relivent and that is what fustrates business.