One of the first lessons we learn in life is to play by the rules. At home, at school, on the playground, or in the neighbourhood, it is the rules that make the world go round, we are told. If it weren’t for the rules, we’d descend into chaos and confusion.
But what about stupid rules? What do we do when we’re faced with rules that not only don’t seem to make sense, but seem to run counter to our best interests? And what do we do when our best interests aren’t just personal to us, but to those who depend on us to deliver services or goods that make their lives better?
This is a dilemma that is increasingly facing people working in the community sector, as the cold hands of auditors general, regulators, and public sector funders tighten their grip on the activities in the sector. Those cold hands are abetted by hysterical and sloppy coverage in the commercial press.
The result is the imposition of rules and reporting processes comprehensively out of step with the actual risk of waste in the sector.
Starting in recent decades with dubious federal government grants for golf courses and fountains, then the Sponsorship Scandal, federal rules were tightened on the grantees, the vast majority of which were nowhere near the tainted transactions. In Ontario, as a response to the press-fuelled “scandal” at e-Health, tight “accountability” protocols were brought in which put precise limits on what could be spent for meals ($11.25 for lunch, all in), and what constituted a sufficient distance from the office for a chargeable meal (24 km.). And for those who thought they might save some money by buying groceries and preparing meals or snacks, they now had to get “prior approval” and a “written rationale” for the grocery bill to qualify. The rules were comprehensive and prescriptive.
It only got worse with the hunt for the “gravy train” in the Toronto mayoralty election. The hunt is still on. Then when the press piled on an oddly emotional commentary and report by an auditor of Toronto Community Housing, using words and phrases like “lavish” and “out of control”, everyone in the sector began to flinch.
I heard a story recently of an organization which had identified a training course for a valued employee which would help elevate them to the next level, certainly one of the best human resource tools, but the course was offered in Las Vegas. How would that look on page one of the newspaper? The agency sought advice and was told to find a similar course closer to home. They did, but it cost almost three times as much. The advice was to take it, because the optics were better.
Feedback is the key driver of intelligent systems. The problem with stupid rules is that they ignore feedback. Rules that are constructed to eliminate the need for intelligence, judgment, or human management lead to those “Las Vegas” type situations. They invite people to suspend their better instincts and “follow the rules”, even when they know the rules are making them do stupid things.
And such rule regimes tend to last well beyond any salutary remedial effect they were intended to have in the first place.
Probably the worst thing they do is cause people to flinch. And to doubt their own good judgement.
The community sector is notoriously underfunded and therefore thinly managed. Most organizations’ management teams are under-staffed, overworked, and underpaid. They make up a lot of ground through effort, judgement, and experience. Now they are losing some of that ground through flinching and filling out forms.
Governments need to recognize the unreasonable burdens they put on the sector. There is no question that the community sector can do its job better, and that it makes some decisions it wishes it could make again. In that regard they are like the business and government sectors, and maybe even like the press. But the way to make them better is not by imposing rules and reporting requirements which provide bureaucratic cover for government officials but don’t help the hard-stressed community sector serve its clients better or accomplish its work more effectively.
Government can help by making sure there aren’t stupid rules in place.