Red tape

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This article is about the idiom referring to excessive bureaucratic regulation. For other uses, see Red tape (disambiguation).
American Civil War "Red Tape" binding redeemed Confederate States of America bond coupons

Red tape is an idiom that refers to excessive regulation or rigid conformity to formal rules that is considered redundant or bureaucratic and hinders or prevents action or decision-making. It is usually applied to governments, corporations, and other large organizations.

One definition is the "collection or sequence of forms and procedures required to gain bureaucratic approval for something, especially when oppressively complex and time-consuming".[1] Another definition is the "bureaucratic practice of hair splitting or foot dragging, blamed by its practitioners on the system that forces them to follow prescribed procedures to the letter".[2]

Red tape generally includes filling out paperwork, obtaining licenses, having multiple people or committees approve a decision and various low-level rules that make conducting one's affairs slower, more difficult, or both. Red tape can also include "filing and certification requirements, reporting, investigation, inspection and enforcement practices, and procedures".[3]


Bundle of US pension documents from 1906 bound in red tape

The origin of the term is somewhat obscure, but it is first noted in historical records in the 16th century, when Henry VIII besieged Pope Clement VII with around eighty or so petitions for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. A photo of the petitions from Cardinal Wolsey and others, now stored in the Vatican archives, can be seen on page 160 of Saints and Sinners: A History of The Popes, by Eamon Duffy (published by Yale University Press in 1997). The documents can be viewed rolled and stacked in their original condition, each one sealed and bound with the obligatory red tape, as was the custom.

It appears likely that it was the Spanish administration of Charles V in the early 16th century, who started to use the red tape in an effort to modernise the administration that was running his vast empire. The red tape was used to bind the important administrative dossiers that had to be discussed by the Council of State, and separate them from the issues that were treated in an ordinary administrative way, which were bound by an ordinary rope. Most of the red tapes arriving to the Council of State were manufactured in the city of 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, because most of the important dossiers came from the Low Countries and Germany. The Spanish name for red tape "balduque" took the name from the Spanish translation of the city of 's-Hertogenbosch which is "Bolduque".

Although they were not governing such a vast territory as Charles V, this practice of using red tape to separate the important dossiers that had to be discussed, was quickly copied by the other modern European monarchs to speed up their administrative machines.

In this age of civil servants using computers and information technology, a legacy from the administration of the Spanish Empire can still be observed where some parts of the higher levels of the Spanish administration continue the tradition of using red tape to bind important dossiers that need to be discussed and to keep them bound in red tape when the dossier is closed. This is, for example, the case for the Spanish Council of State, the supreme consultative council of the Spanish Government. In contrast, the lower Spanish courts use ordinary ropes to bundle documents as their cases are not supposed to be heard at higher levels. The Spanish Government plans to phase out the use of paper and abandon the practice of using ordinary ropes.

The tradition continued through to the 17th and 18th century. Although Charles Dickens is believed to have used the phrase before Thomas Carlyle,[4] the English practice of binding documents and official papers with red tape was popularized in Carlyle's writings, protesting against official inertia with expressions like "Little other than a red tape Talking-machine, and unhappy Bag of Parliamentary Eloquence". To this day, most defence barristers' briefs, and those from private clients, are tied in a pink-coloured ribbon known as "pink tape" or "legal tape". Government briefs, including those of the prosecution counsel, are usually bound with white tape, introduced as an economy measure[citation needed] to save the expense of dyeing the tape red. Traditionally, official Vatican documents were also bound in red cloth tape.

All American Civil War veterans' records were bound in red tape, and the difficulty in accessing them led to the modern American use of the term,[5] but there is evidence (as detailed above) that the term was in use in its modern sense sometime before this.

Red tape reduction[edit]

The "cutting of red tape" - meaning a reduction of bureaucratic obstacles to action - is a popular electoral and policy promise.[citation needed]

Business representatives often claim red tape is a barrier to business, particularly small business. In Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business[6] has done extensive research[7] into the impact of red tape on small businesses.

The European Commission has a competition that offers an award for the "Best Idea for Red Tape Reduction". The competition is "aimed at identifying innovative suggestions for reducing unnecessary bureaucracy stemming from European law".[8] In 2008, the European Commission held a conference entitled 'Cutting Red Tape for Europe'. The goal of the conference was "reducing red tape and overbearing bureaucracy," in order to help "business people and entrepreneurs improve competitiveness".[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "red tape: Definition from". Retrieved 2012-10-09. 
  2. ^ "What is red tape? definition and meaning". Retrieved 2012-10-09. 
  3. ^ "Red Tape Reduction Initiative | Business". Retrieved 2012-10-09. 
  4. ^ p.1152, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 17th Edition; Revised by J Ayto, 2005
  5. ^ "Red Tape, North and South, in the Civil War". Retrieved 2012-10-09. 
  6. ^ "". Retrieved 2014-01-23. 
  7. ^ "Canada’s Red Tape Report". Retrieved 2014-01-23. 
  8. ^ European Commission[dead link]
  9. ^ "de beste bron van informatie over cuttingredtape. Deze website is te koop!". Retrieved 2012-10-09. [dead link]


  • Barry Bozeman (2000) Bureaucracy and Red Tape Prentice-Hall Publishing.
  • OECD (2006) 'Cutting red tape; national strategies for administrative simplification' OECD Editions, Paris.

External links[edit]