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Unearthing the Rules
September 11, 2007 - 6:33am

Yesterday, I advised cultivating a certain indifference to the unwritten rules.

Today's post is about the written ones.

Folks who haven't worked in management frequently respond to managers' frustration with common-sense questions, like “why can't they just get it right the first time?” Questions like these are often based on invalid assumptions, such as the commonplace assumption that somewhere, someone has an up-to-date book with all of the rules and procedures in it.


In the public sector, getting anything new done requires jumping from one jurisdiction to another to another, each with its own set of rules, assumptions, and timelines. Anything new, pretty much by definition, will involve combining those rules in ways that weren't foreseen when the rules were made. If the organization has any kind of maturity – and public sector ones absolutely do – then the folks who wrote the initial sets of rules are long gone, and the current staff has inherited a legacy of rules scattered hither and yon. Some of those rules have been honored in the breach; some originated as exceptions; some are internally contradictory; some were never written but have taken on the force of rule by 'past practice'. Simply putting together a list of the relevant rules for something new requires a sort of archeological expedition across multiple sites, with varying levels of cooperation.

If you happen to be in a relatively decentralized system, multiply this issue by the number of sites.

It's maddening, because the only time you find out about the rules is after you've (allegedly) violated them. Sometimes the allegation turns out to be true, sometimes not, but either way it costs time. Since there's virtually no cost for making a false allegation, folks who want to shoot a proposal down frequently resort to claiming recovered repressed memories of long-ago rulings.

Keeping the rules obscure is one way that some long-entrenched folks hold power. They're the ones who (claim to) remember the origin of such-and-such a policy twenty years ago, which they won't bother sharing until there's something to torpedo. (I admit taking a perverse glee in those rare occasions when I can prove one of those claims false.)

In other industries, there's an entire class of people – usually called “lawyers” -- whose entire job it is to go marching through rules to make things happen (or not happen). It's their full-time job, for which the most prominent ones are exceedingly well-paid. If the rule book were clearer, these folks wouldn't be nearly as necessary as they are.

In my world, we don't have the resources to keep an army of attorneys at the ready to do the digging every time we come up with something. So we have to act as amateur ad hoc attorneys, which is a remarkably frustrating experience. It's all the more frustrating when there's no such thing as a law library or a central, single administrative code. Things are just all over the place.

I've seen two responses to this dilemma, neither satisfying. At Proprietary U, the answer was to change the rules from the top down every time the wind shifted. It had the advantage of speed, and cutting through red tape was remarkably easy, but there was a certain arbitrariness to it that made working there frustrating beyond belief. Here, we have the opposite problem. We have multiple processes, plenty of involvement, and 'veto groups' everywhere. It makes stupid and arbitrary changes harder, but it also makes plainly necessary changes harder. Worse, without some sort of parliamentarian or umpire, the processes frequently devolve into interest-group politics, at which point precedents are set based not on what makes sense, but on who was in the room at the time.


Sorry for the whine. I just don't like playing emergency archeologist.


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