Opening up the Black Box of Organizational Rule Effectiveness

Opening up the Black Box of Organizational Rule Effectiveness The importance of organizational rules can hardly be overstated. Rules provide a blueprint for organizational design, define the goods and services that organizations are required to deliver, and ensure that employees understand what is expected of them, to mention just a few examples. Indeed, organizations would be rife with uncertainty, inefficiencies, and favoritism in the absence of rules. Although much research in public administration is concerned with rules that do not work (e.g., red tape), Leisha DeHart-Davis argues that understanding rules that do work is equally important for scholars and practitioners alike. This is a valid point, especially if we consider that academic bodies of research can (or, perhaps, should) meaningfully inform practice. In this light, a comprehensive overview of how organizational rules can be created, implemented, and enforced effectively is most welcome. Creating Effective Rules in Public Sector Organizations not only provides a thorough review of the academic state of the art on organizational rule effectiveness but is also highly readable, making it suitable for multiple audiences. In Creating Effective Rules in Public Sector Organizations, DeHart-Davis puts forward an organizational rules framework that incorporates three perspectives: organizational, individual, and behavioral. The organizational perspective considers rules as an enabler of organizational functions such as coordination, empowerment, and socialization. The individual perspective looks at how individuals experience rules. For example, rules can signal procedural fairness to organizational members, level status differences within the organization, or convey trust between management and employees. Finally, the behavioral perspective captures a wide variety of rule behaviors, ranging from overcompliance to prosocial rule breaking. DeHart-Davis does a good job of synthesizing the different strands of literature from public administration, organization studies, and social psychology underlying the three perspectives. Overall, the perspectives put forward are convincing and appropriate. Theoretical discussions are nicely illustrated with descriptive data from the Local Government Workplaces Study (LGWS), which is a research endeavor that has enabled DeHart-Davis to collect qualitative and quantitative data from local government organizations over a 10-year period. Although the text is well written and informative, it would have been insightful to also see a more extensive discussion of why these particular dimensions are included in the framework and not others, especially given the “panoramic perspective” (p. 17) of the framework. Notably, relatively little attention is paid in the book to the role of external stakeholders and external rules as factors influencing the creation and implementation of organizational rules. DeHart-Davis uses the case of organizational grievance policies to highlight the value added of using three perspectives to study the same policy issue before moving on to a discussion of so-called green tape theory. In a nutshell, green tape reflects the characteristics of effective organizational rules. For example, written rules are considered to be more effective than unwritten rules because written rules convey legitimacy and validity, whereas unwritten rules are often seen as invalid and arbitrary. The concept of green tape, which has already been theoretically refined and tested in a number of journal articles, is particularly appropriate for a book on effective rules. Surprisingly, the three perspectives outlined in the first part of the book are not explicitly included as such in the chapter on green tape. Rather, the assumption is that green tape characteristics contribute to rule effectiveness in general, and will therefore have similar impacts across the three perspectives. This assumption may hold in many cases, but not always. Consulting stakeholders in the process of rule creation may improve perceptions of procedural fairness but at the same time create procedural delays that are detrimental to organizational performance. Similarly, it seems unlikely that managers are able to efficiently communicate rule purposes to every individual employee. Creating effective rules is itself a costly process in which the benefits do not necessarily outweigh the costs. Green tape theory seems to signify a best-case scenario in which resources are not constrained and stakeholder goals are perfectly aligned. In practice, this situation is likely to be the exception rather than the rule. As a result, more could possibly have been said about rulemaking under conditions of budget constraints, divergent stakeholder goals, etc. One of the book’s most interesting sections is the discussion of the Five-Second Rule, an informal crowd control policy used by the Missouri police in the context of the Ferguson riots in 2014. The Five-Second Rule required that peaceful protesters stand still for more no more than 5 s to avoid being arrested. The rule was later challenged in federal court, and DeHart-Davis uses a green tape perspective to convincingly show that this particular rule was lacking in all five green tape characteristics. That is, the rule was not in writing, illogically designed, inconsistently applied, over-controlling, and had poorly understood purposes. The Five-Second Rule provides a helpful real-life application of green tape theory but also highlights the inherent difficulty associated with identifying effective rules. Rather than provide an example of a very effective rule that incorporates green tape characteristics, DeHart-Davis uses the Five-Second Rule to show how the absence of green tape characteristics is associated with an ineffective rule. The problem here is that—much like the performance of a referee in a major sporting event—we only tend to notice rules when something goes wrong. Few memorable anecdotes start with the phrase, “you would not believe what an incredibly effective rule I encountered today.” This issue may seem trivial at first glance, but it has important implications for empirical research on rule effectiveness as the most effective organizational rules likely remain largely unnoticed by definition. In the final chapter of the book, DeHart-Davis reflects on how the organizational rules framework may inform future research. Unfortunately, this section is rather short and generic. For example, DeHart-Davis mirrors calls from the red tape literature to focus more strongly on citizens when studying rule effectiveness. This point is valid, but less so in the context of the organizational rules framework which seems primarily concerned with internal stakeholders. DeHart-Davis’s suggestion of studying organizational rule stocks in terms of red tape and green tape ratios is innovative, but there is little discussion as to what such a research endeavor would look like. This feels like an omission, as a strong argument can be made that green tape, red tape, and administrative burden are actually variations on the same underlying theme, namely rule effectiveness. A more extensive discussion of how these different research streams fit within the organizational rules framework (or not) and how they may be studied empirically could have been another valuable contribution of the book. In sum, Creating Effective Rules in Public Sector Organizations succeeds in synthesizing the diverse and disparate literatures on rule effectiveness. The three perspectives of the organizational rules framework capture a large part of the theoretical spectrum and are intuitively appealing. The book is well written and very accessible for both scholars and practitioners. The absence of a fully-fledged research agenda is a missed opportunity, but there is more than enough theoretical material in the book for future studies to test and further refine the organizational rules framework. © The Author(s) 2017, 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Public Management Research Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory Oxford University Press

Opening up the Black Box of Organizational Rule Effectiveness

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2017, 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Public Management Research Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
1053-1858
eISSN
1477-9803
D.O.I.
10.1093/jopart/mux043
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Abstract

The importance of organizational rules can hardly be overstated. Rules provide a blueprint for organizational design, define the goods and services that organizations are required to deliver, and ensure that employees understand what is expected of them, to mention just a few examples. Indeed, organizations would be rife with uncertainty, inefficiencies, and favoritism in the absence of rules. Although much research in public administration is concerned with rules that do not work (e.g., red tape), Leisha DeHart-Davis argues that understanding rules that do work is equally important for scholars and practitioners alike. This is a valid point, especially if we consider that academic bodies of research can (or, perhaps, should) meaningfully inform practice. In this light, a comprehensive overview of how organizational rules can be created, implemented, and enforced effectively is most welcome. Creating Effective Rules in Public Sector Organizations not only provides a thorough review of the academic state of the art on organizational rule effectiveness but is also highly readable, making it suitable for multiple audiences. In Creating Effective Rules in Public Sector Organizations, DeHart-Davis puts forward an organizational rules framework that incorporates three perspectives: organizational, individual, and behavioral. The organizational perspective considers rules as an enabler of organizational functions such as coordination, empowerment, and socialization. The individual perspective looks at how individuals experience rules. For example, rules can signal procedural fairness to organizational members, level status differences within the organization, or convey trust between management and employees. Finally, the behavioral perspective captures a wide variety of rule behaviors, ranging from overcompliance to prosocial rule breaking. DeHart-Davis does a good job of synthesizing the different strands of literature from public administration, organization studies, and social psychology underlying the three perspectives. Overall, the perspectives put forward are convincing and appropriate. Theoretical discussions are nicely illustrated with descriptive data from the Local Government Workplaces Study (LGWS), which is a research endeavor that has enabled DeHart-Davis to collect qualitative and quantitative data from local government organizations over a 10-year period. Although the text is well written and informative, it would have been insightful to also see a more extensive discussion of why these particular dimensions are included in the framework and not others, especially given the “panoramic perspective” (p. 17) of the framework. Notably, relatively little attention is paid in the book to the role of external stakeholders and external rules as factors influencing the creation and implementation of organizational rules. DeHart-Davis uses the case of organizational grievance policies to highlight the value added of using three perspectives to study the same policy issue before moving on to a discussion of so-called green tape theory. In a nutshell, green tape reflects the characteristics of effective organizational rules. For example, written rules are considered to be more effective than unwritten rules because written rules convey legitimacy and validity, whereas unwritten rules are often seen as invalid and arbitrary. The concept of green tape, which has already been theoretically refined and tested in a number of journal articles, is particularly appropriate for a book on effective rules. Surprisingly, the three perspectives outlined in the first part of the book are not explicitly included as such in the chapter on green tape. Rather, the assumption is that green tape characteristics contribute to rule effectiveness in general, and will therefore have similar impacts across the three perspectives. This assumption may hold in many cases, but not always. Consulting stakeholders in the process of rule creation may improve perceptions of procedural fairness but at the same time create procedural delays that are detrimental to organizational performance. Similarly, it seems unlikely that managers are able to efficiently communicate rule purposes to every individual employee. Creating effective rules is itself a costly process in which the benefits do not necessarily outweigh the costs. Green tape theory seems to signify a best-case scenario in which resources are not constrained and stakeholder goals are perfectly aligned. In practice, this situation is likely to be the exception rather than the rule. As a result, more could possibly have been said about rulemaking under conditions of budget constraints, divergent stakeholder goals, etc. One of the book’s most interesting sections is the discussion of the Five-Second Rule, an informal crowd control policy used by the Missouri police in the context of the Ferguson riots in 2014. The Five-Second Rule required that peaceful protesters stand still for more no more than 5 s to avoid being arrested. The rule was later challenged in federal court, and DeHart-Davis uses a green tape perspective to convincingly show that this particular rule was lacking in all five green tape characteristics. That is, the rule was not in writing, illogically designed, inconsistently applied, over-controlling, and had poorly understood purposes. The Five-Second Rule provides a helpful real-life application of green tape theory but also highlights the inherent difficulty associated with identifying effective rules. Rather than provide an example of a very effective rule that incorporates green tape characteristics, DeHart-Davis uses the Five-Second Rule to show how the absence of green tape characteristics is associated with an ineffective rule. The problem here is that—much like the performance of a referee in a major sporting event—we only tend to notice rules when something goes wrong. Few memorable anecdotes start with the phrase, “you would not believe what an incredibly effective rule I encountered today.” This issue may seem trivial at first glance, but it has important implications for empirical research on rule effectiveness as the most effective organizational rules likely remain largely unnoticed by definition. In the final chapter of the book, DeHart-Davis reflects on how the organizational rules framework may inform future research. Unfortunately, this section is rather short and generic. For example, DeHart-Davis mirrors calls from the red tape literature to focus more strongly on citizens when studying rule effectiveness. This point is valid, but less so in the context of the organizational rules framework which seems primarily concerned with internal stakeholders. DeHart-Davis’s suggestion of studying organizational rule stocks in terms of red tape and green tape ratios is innovative, but there is little discussion as to what such a research endeavor would look like. This feels like an omission, as a strong argument can be made that green tape, red tape, and administrative burden are actually variations on the same underlying theme, namely rule effectiveness. A more extensive discussion of how these different research streams fit within the organizational rules framework (or not) and how they may be studied empirically could have been another valuable contribution of the book. In sum, Creating Effective Rules in Public Sector Organizations succeeds in synthesizing the diverse and disparate literatures on rule effectiveness. The three perspectives of the organizational rules framework capture a large part of the theoretical spectrum and are intuitively appealing. The book is well written and very accessible for both scholars and practitioners. The absence of a fully-fledged research agenda is a missed opportunity, but there is more than enough theoretical material in the book for future studies to test and further refine the organizational rules framework. © The Author(s) 2017, 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Public Management Research Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

Journal of Public Administration Research and TheoryOxford University Press

Published: Apr 1, 2018

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