Obsolete and Onerous Regulations

Posted on October 12, 2018

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Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by the unnecessarily burdensome policies and procedures that exist in local government.

Right Now with Daniel Soto (LinkedIn/Twitter)

What I’m Listening to – Coast Modern – Now I’m Cool

What I’m Watching – Season 3 of Riverdale debuted this week. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s on my watch list. (Thanks Ben Kittelson.)

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 Onerous and Obsolete Regulations

This past August 2018, the City of San Rafael, along with our partners from CivicMakers, kicked off Round 2 of the Together San Rafael Learning Labs—a “learn-by-doing” program consisting of cross-departmental teams of City employees from all levels of the organization that focuses on capacity-building and applying the human-centered design process to shared City challenges. In this setting, employees are assigned to teams who, in turn, work on a specific challenge. At the end of the process, our employees are invited to Demo Day, where each team makes a presentation about their process, learning, and ideas. My supervisor, Rebecca Woodbury, wrote a Morning Buzz about our Learning Labs when the program was first launched in 2017, providing an easy-to-follow overview of the Learning Lab process, along with sharing the story of how the Learning Labs came to be. Check it out.

You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all about this program. Well, this year I get to be a part of it—and I’m excited to share some of my Learning Lab’s progress so far. Also, I feel that this information is valuable because it is likely that the organizational challenges that we face are not unique to the City of San Rafael.

This year’s Learning Labs consist of six teams that are working on the following topics:

  • Employee Evaluations
  • Homeless Encampment Fire and Health Threats
  • Obsolete and Onerous Regulations
  • Cultivating a Positive Culture
  • Community Partnerships

I’m part of the Obsolete and Onerous Regulations Learning Lab (I promise it’s not boring) and we’re working off of this challenge statement:

Outdated regulations are often no longer effective and can be a sense of frustration to both staff and the public. They can create unnecessary bureaucracy that slows down projects and increases costs. How might we reduce the number of outdated and ineffective regulations?

It’s kind of a big deal, right? Over the past several weeks, our Learning Lab has been trying to hack away at this topic, narrow the scope, refine the challenge statement, and respond to the challenge statement by identifying a methodology that incorporates elements of human-centered design (basically, we’re interviewing City staff with questions that are tailored to them and their needs). As of right now, we are in the middle of our interviews—and I wanted to share some of the responses that we’ve received so far. Below are the six questions that we’ve asked our City employees, along with a sneak peek of their responses. All of these interviews were conducted as one-to-one interviews and we informed our respondents that the data we would collect from these interviews would not include any personally identifiable information.

Question 1: What makes your job hard that shouldn’t be? Tell me about a time when a process/procedure/rule/regulation made your job burdensome or difficult.

  • Lack of written policies
  • Lack of updated policies
  • Lack of easily accessible policies
  • Inconsistent compliance with existing policies
  • Manual processes (as opposed to automation)
  • Lack of documented procedures
  • No good communication feedback to the source of a policy
  • No authority to implement new policies and procedures or to make recommendations
  • Lack of understanding from staff about the important policies and procedures
  • Duplicative processes

Question 2: In an ideal situation, how would the scenario from Question 1 be different?

  • Regularly update City policies and procedures
  • Reduce paper use
  • Use technology to implement automation
  • Create documented protocols
  • Create redundancy in training
  • Document procedure.
  • Use a feedback loop; foster a culture of using a systems approach to analyze the effectiveness of a particular policy or procedure
  • Supervisors need to set the expectation and hold people accountable
  • City employees should not find work-arounds so as to avoid following the process/procedure
  • Prioritize what needs to get done and move things towards completion
  • Educate employees about processes and procedures
  • Consolidate duplicative processes
  • Form an employee committee that it tasked with reviewing policies and updating them regularly
  • Prioritize time and resources to ensure documented processes and procedures are followed
  • Streamline enforcement of policies and procedures

Question 3: Who do you think this problem affects?

  • New employees
  • All employees
  • The entire organization
  • [self]
  • The public

Question 4: Why is it important to address this problem?

  • Consistency, legal liabilities, detrimental to decision making processes
  • We want to be effective and efficient. We want employees to understand why we have policies and procedures in place and why we must follow them
  • Control is important
  • We want to make compliance easy for staff
  • We want to be mindful of City resources by focusing on efficiency and effectiveness
  • We want to be confident in our policies and guidelines
  • Policies and procedures are intended to help make organization run smoothly
  • We want to ensure that we are complying with federal, state, and other applicable laws and regulations
  • We need to function better

Question 5: Why does this problem exist?

  • “This is how it is” and “it’s always been this way” mentality from supervisors and staff
  • It takes too much effort to fix the problem and there is no desire from management or staff to address it head-on.
  • Ineffective legacy systems that have limited functionality to support a 21st century government
  • Staff has not taken the time to prepare protocols
  • There is no process for maintaining policies and procedures
  • There is no structure or system in place to measure effectiveness of policies and procedures; there is no feedback loop
  • There is no organization-wide training structure/system in place
  • Many of the City’s existing policies and procedures are created around person doing the job and not around the actual process
  • Many policies procedures are not documented
  • Many policies and procedures lack clarity
  • Low turnover of management
  • Employees and managers have not been challenged
  • Someone decided this was the only way and process have not been revisited
  • No accountability
  • Inconsistency of applicability of policies and procedures
  • Work-arounds

Question 6: As a follow-up to your response for Question 2, do you think there is a more creative solution to this problem?

  • Use automation
  • Implement Citywide training tailored to specific groups and topics
  • Create a systems approach for employees to go back to the source of a policy, address their concern, and get feedback
  • Do not avoid a problem; Confront the problem
  • Reorganize City departments and divisions
  • Set expectations and hold people accountable.
  • Convene a committee of City staff to meet regularly to review and update policies
  • Contract with a consultant to review and update the City’s policies and procedures

As you may notice, there are several recurring themes in the responses we’ve received so far, such as the lack of documented policies and procedures or setting expectations or holding people accountable. So far, what has stood out to me the most was this response:

Many of the City’s existing policies and procedures are created around person doing the job and not around the actual process itself.

I have experienced issues/challenges in the workplace relating to this problem, but I didn’t think it was common. I’m curious to see if our Learning Lab will receive similar feedback in the remainder of our one-to-one interviews with City staff.

If you’re interested in learning more about our Learning Labs (and a bunch of other stuff we do), check out our employee website.

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