Red tape is an idiom referring to regulations or conformity to formal rules or standards which are claimed to be excessive, rigid or redundant, or to bureaucracy claimed to hinder or prevent action or decision-making. It is usually applied to governments, corporations, and other large organizations. Things often described as "red tape" include 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 has been found to hamper organizational performance and employee wellbeing by meta-analytic studies in 2020.
It is generally believed that the term originated with the Spanish administration of Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, in the early 16th century, who started to use red tape in an effort to modernize the administration that was running his vast empire. The red tape was used to bind the most important administrative dossiers that required immediate discussion by the Council of State, and separate them from issues that were treated in an ordinary administrative way, which were bound with ordinary string.
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.
The tradition continued through to the 17th and 18th century. In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens wrote, "Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl: skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape." The English practice of binding documents and official papers with red tape was popularized in Thomas 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 defense barristers' briefs, and those from private clients, are tied in a pink-coloured ribbon known as "pink tape" or "legal tape".
In the late 20th century and continuing into the 21st century, with 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 twine to bundle documents as their cases are not supposed to be heard at higher levels. The Spanish Government plans[when?] to phase out the use of paper and abandon the practice of using twine.
As of the early 21st century, Spanish bureaucracy continues to be notorious for unusually extreme levels of red tape (in the figurative sense). As of 2013, the World Bank ranked Spain 136 out of 185 countries for ease of starting a business, which took on average 10 procedures and 28 days.
Similar issues persist throughout Latin America. For example, Mexico was the original home of Syntex, one of the greatest pharmaceutical firms of the 20th century—but in 1959, the company left for the American city of Palo Alto, California (in what is now Silicon Valley) because its scientists were fed up with the Mexican government's bureaucratic delays which repeatedly impeded their research. As of 2009 in Mexico, it took six months and a dozen visits to government agencies to obtain a permit to paint a house, and to obtain a monthly prescription for gamma globulin for X-linked agammaglobulinemia a patient had to obtain signatures from two government doctors and stamps from four separate bureaucrats before presenting the prescription to a dispensary.
Red tape reduction
The expression "cutting of red tape" generally refers to a reduction of bureaucratic obstacles to action. It is also used as a cover to justify the reduction or removal of protective standards or regulations.
Business representatives often claim red tape is a barrier to business, particularly small business. In Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has done extensive research 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". 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".
- Busy work
- Instruction creep
- Paperwork Reduction Act
- Purple crocodile
- Sir Humphrey Appleby
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