Dear Bureaucrat,

Where I work, there’s no way to look up how anything should be done. When I needed to send a document by overnight delivery, it was a two-hour project to ask around about getting the label, the billing code, where to bring the envelope, etc. When I do my work, I have to copy how each task was done last time, no matter how stupid that was, because there’s no way to know what requirements we really need to meet. Then somebody will decide they want it done differently and I have to redo it, even though there was no way I could know. There are policies and procedures on our intranet, but they are vague, out of date and contradictory, so everybody ignores them. Am I crazy to want a rule book so I’m not always guessing what will go through?

Signed, Hammurabi

Dear Hammurabi,

The good news is, you are not crazy. We all hate red tape that gets in the way of doing our jobs, but Leisha DeHart-Davis coined the term “green tape” for rules that help us do our work. In one study, DeHart-Davis, Davis, and Mohr surveyed government workers about rules for their jobs. Workers who said their workplaces had more written rules, rather than unwritten rules, were more satisfied that the rules were applied consistently and less likely to say the rules were unnecessary, burdensome and excessively controlling. They also had better job satisfaction. When everybody can read the rules, at least you know what you need to do, and you are less at the mercy of other people’s whims.

The bad news is, your employer will probably not start producing written rules that you can actually use. The unusable policies and procedures you found are just for show. A poorly managed organization creates a written policy about something because a law says it should, or to show it is doing something in response to a problem, or to join in the latest management fad. But work is governed by unwritten rules, because officials do not want to be held accountable for how things are really done. For example, a written policy may describe how certain decisions are made by civil servants, with no mention of political appointees, but the unwritten rule is that everything must be discussed with the appointee’s personal staff before it goes out.

You can make up in part for your management’s failure to provide usable procedures, by organizing your own notes on why you need to do each task a certain way. In a previous column I advised making a checklist that lays out the steps for any task you do repeatedly. With the checklist, you do not need to reinvent the wheel every time you do the task. You can keep improving the checklist based on steps that worked or didn’t, so you do not repeat the same mistakes. You can also build in some time-saving automation, by putting links in the checklist that open a spreadsheet, template or other resource you need for a particular step with a single click.

What I did not mention in the earlier column, is that the checklist I make for my own use does not only show how to perform tasks, I also annotate it to show why I am required to do it that way. For example, if a law says some step must be performed within a certain number of days, then the checklist will show that deadline, and it will also note the section of law that imposes the deadline. I include unwritten rules; for example, if an official says in a phone call that certain people should not be on the distribution list for a certain type of information, then I will adjust the distribution list in the outline, and also note the particulars of that phone call.

Including notes about the unwritten rules makes the outline potentially embarrassing to officials. I keep my outline as a word-processing document, and for the notes about why things are required I use the comment feature, rather than typing them as ordinary text. That makes it easy to print the outline without printing the comments, to show somebody what needs to be done without revealing my notes about why we are required to do it.

Making your own outline of how to perform your tasks, annotated with why you are required to do it that way, will not make up for your employer’s failure to give you usable written procedures. But it will provide some benefits. When you are considering whether to do some step differently, you will have the information in front of you about whether it would violate a requirement you cannot change, or just a preference from somebody you can negotiate with. When somebody asks why you are doing a task a certain way, you will be able to cite from your notes the requirements that compel it.

Just by doing your tasks time and again using the same steps, same formats, etc., you will turn your procedure into an unwritten rule that people will tend to go along with. In organizations that lack clear written procedures, people accept that the way they have seen a task done before is the safest way to do it. So you can partially fill the management deficit in your organization with a little green tape of your own.

Dear Bureaucrat provides the federal workforce with the opportunity to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.

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