More than Pathological Formalization: Understanding Organizational Structure and Red Tape

Date01 March 2019
Published date01 March 2019
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 2, pp. 236–245. © 2018 The
Authors. Public Administration Review
publishedby Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on
behalf of American Society for Public
Administration. DOI: 10.1111/puar.12958.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited
and is not used for commercial purposes.
Abstract: Most research has conceptualized red tape as being a pathological subset of organizational formalization.
This article argues that focusing on a single dimension of organizational structure as a red tape driver is unrealistically
narrow. Specifically, the article advances hypotheses as to how organizational centralization and hierarchy affect
perceived red tape, in addition to formalization. This reasoning is tested using survey data from employees of three
local government organizations in the southeastern United States. All three hypotheses are supported: higher levels of
organizational formalization, centralization, and hierarchy are associated with more red tape. Open-ended comments
also indicate that red tape is not solely perceived as related to formalization. The findings imply that red tape is a
multifaceted perception of organizational structure rather than perceived pathological formalization.
Evidence for Practice
Research suggests that red tape tends to correlate with organizational effectiveness and public service
motivation, making red tape a matter of managerial concern.
When employees talk about red tape, they are referring to structural aspects of the workplace that are
frustrating, including centralized decision making, tall hierarchies, and burdensome rules.
While red tape is subjective, public organizations should carefully evaluate rule effectiveness, consider
pushing decision making downward, and investigate whether there are excessive managerial layers.
Public administration scholars have struggled
for decades to pin down the concept of
organizational red tape. Most organizational
red tape studies have followed Bozeman’s
definition of “rules, regulations, and procedures
that remain in force and entail a compliance
burden for the organization but have no efficacy
for the rules’ functional object” (1993, 283). In
this conceptualization, red tape is considered
a pathological subset of formalization, where
formalization denotes the intensity of written rules
within an organization (Bozeman and Scott 1996).
As such, formalization is a necessary but insufficient
condition for red tape. Yet red tape is commonly
associated with a wide variety of bureaucratic ills
that may or may not pertain to formalization (e.g.,
Bozeman and Feeney 2011; Goodsell 2004).
This article introduces a different perspective
on the rules and red tape debate and argue that
impressions of red tape are based on multiple
dimensions of overall organizational structure, not
just formalization. While many red tape studies
equate red tape with impressions of pathological rules
and procedures (e.g., Kaufmann and Feeney 2014;
Pandey and Kingsley 2000; Pandey and Scott 2002),
the literature is mostly silent on the causes of these
impressions. In particular, little is known about how
organizational centralization and hierarchy may affect
the extent to which an individual perceives red tape.
First, the level of centralization affects where
decision-making power is concentrated in an
organization (e.g., Pugh et al. 1968). Employees
working in a more centralized organization need to
defer decision making upward in the organization,
whereas a decentralized organization pushes decision
power downward in the organization. Research on
the outcomes of (de)centralization has produced
mixed results, but many studies have shown that
decentralization can positively affect employee
motivation, employee loyalty, and organizational
performance (Adler and Borys 1996; Baum and Wally
2003; Hill and Pickering 1986). In a decentralized
organization, employees are provided with many
opportunities to help shape their work processes,
whereas in a centralized organization, employees need
to wait constantly for input from their supervisors
before progressing with their work or starting a
process (e.g., Fredrickson 1986; Schminke, Ambrose,
and Cropanzano 2000). In this light, decentralization
has been suggested as a solution for cutting red tape
Wesley Kaufmann
Tilburg University
Erin L. Borry
University of Alabama at Birmingham
More than Pathological Formalization:
Understanding Organizational Structure and Red Tape
Leisha DeHart-Davis
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Leisha DeHart-Davis is professor of
public administration and government in
the School of Government, University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She studies
public sector organizational behavior
and is the author of Creating Effective
Rules in Public Sector Organizations
(Georgetown University Press, 2017).
Erin L. Borry is assistant professor
in the Department of Political Science
and Public Administration, University of
Alabama at Birmingham. Her research
interests include rules and red tape,
organizational ethics, and race and gender
in public administration. Her work has
appeared in Review of Public Personnel
Administration, International
Public Management Journal, Public
Administration, and Public Integrity.
Wesley Kaufmann is associate
professor in the Tilburg Institute of
Governance, Tilburg University, the
Netherlands. His research interests
include red tape, rule effectiveness, and
good governance. His research has been
published in such journals as Public
Administration, Public Management
Review, and International Public
Management Journal.
Research Article

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