How red tape is born

Meteorologist-readers of this blog know all about fronts and cyclones. Are you a meteorologist? Then you also know about frontogenesis and cyclogenesis…the origin/development/generation of weather fronts and cyclones. [As in genesis=beginnings, origins.] The same root word or notion crops up in biology: genes and genetics deal with the origins/heredity of biological characteristics. In the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis.

These days meteorologists and other scientists are getting a new lesson in generation… not the origins of the universe or weather, but the beginnings of regulations and red tape:


Here’s an example of how it starts. We’re all painfully aware that in 2010 the western regions of the General Services Administration held a four-day conference for 300 participants that ran up a tab of some $800,000. Expenses included hotel suites, tuxedos, fine wines, $75,000 team building exercises, etc.

You’d be hard-put to find anyone on the planet who thinks this was a good thing…including, by this time, the participants. They’ve come under Congressional scrutiny, lost their jobs, found their careers ruined, and worse.

But the arc of the pain is widening, drawing in large numbers of innocents, and possibly threatening to cost the public far more[1]. Suspicion that such abuses may have been widespread is tempting Congress to draft legislation to curb federal expenditures on travel and conferences.

Want to dig deeper? You might start with the legislation: for example, section 308 of H.R. 2146, an act “to amend title 31, United States Code, to require accountability and transparency in Federal spending, and for other purposes.” Or the similar language in section 5712 of  S. 1789, an “act to sustain, improve, and transform the U.S. Postal Service.”  Jeff Rosenfeld and the AMS blog The Front Page provide a nice summary of the provisions being proposed and their implications for professional societies such as the AMS or AGU. They note:

  • government agencies would not be able to sponsor employees’ attendance at more than one conference per fiscal year sponsored by any given external organization
  • presence at conference abroad would be limited to 50 (domestically-based) employees of any one agency
  • funding for any single conference cannot exceed $500,000.
  • Post online quarterly justification and itemizations of all conference spending.
  • Post online all minutes, presentations, and other documentation of conferences attended by government employees.

Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma introduced the amendment (S.Amdt.2060) in response to recent revelations of seemingly lavish spending by the General Services Administration at a Las Vegas conference. Coburn and the amendment’s co-sponsors believe that there are abuses of the use of travel and conference funding throughout the Federal government and that transparency and limits will enable better oversight and reduce waste. Coburn’s office has been aiming to reduce conference expenditures to 80 percent of 2010 levels.”

The folks at AGU have summarized the impacts this way:  “The language in S.AMDT. 2060 threatens to damage essential communication among scientists. Government attendance at scientific meetings not only fosters collaboration and future partnerships between government scientists and academia and industry, but the collaboration and exchange of ideas also avoids duplicative scientific efforts and stimulates new concepts. While it is extremely important to eliminate wasteful government spending, Congress should consider ways to avoid excesses that will not also inadvertently damage the United States’ scientific enterprise.”

So, as AGU notes, it’s not just innocent federal workers who would pay a price. It’s not just innocent federal workers who happen to be scientists. It’s all their colleagues who can no longer communicate and coordinate with quite so freely. It’s you and me, the public, who are counting on a century of innovation to neutralize the downside of unprecedented rates of natural resource extraction, environmental stress, and exposure to hazards, over the next hundred years.

We’ve seen this kind of impact in other arenas. Take the costs of terrorism. The events of September 11, 2001, were horrific and tragic. But in the effort to ensure that tragedy will never be repeated, we’ve added costs and delays to hundreds of millions of innocent travelers. We’ve bought equipment for small towns and cities that will never be used. We’ve taken our eye off the hazards such as extreme weather that pose a far larger threat to most Americans. A decade later, we continue to stifle the immigration of fresh blood and thought and creativity that has helped make America great. Another example? Much of the cost and unnecessary waste in the health care system results from red tape aimed at avoiding a recurrence of mistakes.

That’s because it turns out that policy is a blunt instrument when it comes to right social wrongs. It’s rare that written policies, broadly and fairly applied, excise problems with surgical precision.

You and I can see this at home. Suppose each time you and your spouse or life partner wronged each other, you wrote up a little regulation to correct the problem…ensure that it never happened again. Suppose, in response to such regulations, we then wrote each other text messages or e-mails in opposition, highlighting all that was unfair or wrongfooted.


What a nightmare!

Instead, for the most part, we solve those problems in a different way, don’t we? We talk things through. We draw on a big bank account of shared interests and past kindnesses and love and commitment. We apologize. We forgive. We find some small or big step that presses the reset button and gets us back on the right track.

So, when you see the appeals from scientific societies, the American Society of Association Executives, and others for all of us to push back, to write our elected representatives, remember…as appropriate as that step may be…it’s not sufficient. At best, it’s no more than a starting point. Suppose hundreds of scientists write, and then later the legislation fails to pass. Might be tempting to think, “well, we beat that back.” But that’s post hoc, ergo propter hoc thinking.  The reality is likely different. Turns out, as we emphasize to participants in our AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, only four percent of bills introduced in Congress get passed (and most of these are trivial). So chances are good this legislation will die no matter what we do or don’t do.

Instead, the biggest issue, the greatest responsibility for each of us is less to write a letter of complaint and more to restore communication, trust, building of common purpose, between our community and the Congressional community we depend on, and that has treated science so well over the years. Write your Congressional member about some of your work that you’re excited about, or something positive they’re doing. And don’t wait until there’s trouble. Make a practice of this.

Then we might experience


As in the decline or death of red tape.

[In analogy with frontolysis or cyclolysis…the decline or dissipation of fronts and cyclones.]

And the world would be the better for it.

[1] Remember the six phases of a project? We have arrived at Phase 4: Punishment of the Innocent

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4 Responses to How red tape is born

  1. Once again demonstrating that exceptions make bad law. Your prescription is a good one!

  2. Quyen Wickham says:

    Regarding Tom Coburn’s election to Congress… as the prayer goes… ‘we are sorry for these our misdoings’. In all honesty, many of us in Oklahoma have tried to put better souls in Congress, but most of our efforts have been focused on unseating another infamous congressman. As for red tape, Oklahoma gets to boast one, if the *the* most bloated state constitutions out of the fifty. Apparently, bureaucracy is in our blood and Coburn is no stranger to regulation. Oklahoma’s speciality lies in unfunded mandates… which keeps the corruption flowing and lawyers well fed. *Sigh*

  3. Michael Cunningham says:

    There needs to be a balance, Bill. I encouraged my staff (public service economists) to remain professionally up-to-date, reading relevant journals and attending relevant conferences and seminars. This helped maintain our work at a high standard, as well as being good for morale and consequently productivity. I knew, through my selection and staff and the ethos of our unit, that such attendance would not be abused. But I’ve also been aware that many in the public service did not have similar ethics and did rort the system on junkets with little or no professional benefit. I don’t know whether or not the GSA conference expenditure was justified – your mention suggests that at least some of it might not have been – but politicians will always respond with a blanket response which punishes those like you and I as well as any exploiters of public trust, often to public detriment. The best thing we can do is to ensure that our own conference etc expenses are always justified, and raise concerns when we see others adopt lower standards. That lessens the risk of external opprobrium and harmful regulatory action.

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