Red tape

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American Civil War "Red Tape" binding redeemed Confederate States of America bond coupons

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.[1][2][3] Red tape has been found to hamper organizational performance and employee wellbeing by meta-analytic studies in 2020.[4][5]


Bundle of US pension documents from 1906 bound in red tape

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.[6]

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.

Later history[edit]

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[7] 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".

20th–21st century[edit]

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.[citation needed] The Spanish Government plans[when?] to phase out the use of paper and abandon the practice of using twine.[citation needed]

As of the early 21st century, Spanish bureaucracy continues to be notorious for unusually extreme levels of red tape (in the figurative sense).[8] 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.[9]

Similar issues persist throughout Latin America.[8][10] 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.[11] As of 2009 in Mexico, it took six months and a dozen visits to government agencies to obtain a permit to paint a house,[12] 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.[13]

Red tape reduction[edit]

The expression "cutting of red tape" generally refers to a reduction of bureaucratic obstacles to action. Public administration scholars have studied the impact of red tape on public servants through research on administrative performance, behavioral impact, and rule quality.[14]

Business representatives often claim red tape is a barrier to business, particularly small business. In Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business[15] has done extensive research[16] into the impact of red tape on small businesses. ’As of 2018, small businesses were subject to 15,875 regulatory requirements from Health Canada, 1,808 from the Canada Revenue Agency and 4,519 from Finance Canada. According to data compiled by the federal government, a total of 136,121 federal requirements were imposed on businesses, in addition to provincial requirements. The Canadian government’s One-for-One rule recommends that regulators offset new costs in the two years following the implementation of new regulation. From 2012 to 2018, 131 individual regulations were eliminated by Ottawa, reducing the administrative burden by $30.6 million. However, during that same time period, 76 new regulations were exempted from the One-for-One rule.[17]

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".[18] 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".[19]

Administrative burden[edit]

"Administrative burden" is a related concept to "red tape."[20][21][22][23] Whereas red tape suggests that regulations do not serve legitimate purposes, the concept of administrative burden recognizes that regulations that are intended for good purposes may nonetheless entail a burden.[20] Administrative burden can be defined as "the learning, psychological, and compliance costs that citizens experience in their interactions with government."[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "red tape: Definition from". Retrieved 2012-10-09.
  2. ^ "What is red tape? definition and meaning". Archived from the original on 2012-11-09. Retrieved 2012-10-09.
  3. ^ "Red Tape Reduction Initiative | Business". Archived from the original on 2012-11-09. Retrieved 2012-10-09.
  4. ^ George, Bert; Pandey, Sanjay K.; Steijn, Bram; Decramer, Adelien; Audenaert, Mieke (2020). "Red tape, organizational performance and employee outcomes: meta-analysis, meta-regression and research agenda". Public Administration Review. 81 (4): 638–651. doi:10.1111/puar.13327. hdl:1854/LU-8683417. ISSN 1540-6210. S2CID 228922524.
  5. ^ Blom, Rutger; Borst, Rick T.; Voorn, Bart (2020-05-31). "Pathology or Inconvenience? A Meta-Analysis of the Impact of Red Tape on People and Organizations". Review of Public Personnel Administration. 41 (4): 623–650. doi:10.1177/0734371X20924117. ISSN 0734-371X.
  6. ^ Dickson, Del (2015). The People's Government: An Introduction to Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 176. ISBN 9781107043879. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  7. ^ p.1152, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 17th Edition; Revised by J Ayto, 2005
  8. ^ a b Graff, Marie Louise (2009). CultureShock! Spain (6th ed.). Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish. p. 57. ISBN 9789814435949.
  9. ^ Buck, Tobias (2 June 2013). "Spain hopes new law to cut red tape will attract entrepreneurs". Financial Times. The Financial Times Ltd. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  10. ^ Jose Luis Guasch; Benjamin Herzberg (2008). "Increasing Competitiveness Through Regulatory and Investment Climate Improvements in Latin America; the Case of Mexico". In Haar, Jerry; Price, John (eds.). Can Latin America Compete? Confronting the Challenges of Globalization. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 255. ISBN 9781403975430.
  11. ^ Gereffi, Gary (1983). The Pharmaceutical Industry and Dependency in the Third World (2017 reprint ed.). Princeton University Press: Princeton. p. 110. ISBN 9781400886227. Retrieved 11 January 2021.
  12. ^ Ellingwood, Ken (2 January 2009). "No stamp of approval for Mexico bureaucrats". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  13. ^ Malkin, Elizabeth (8 January 2009). "For Redress of Grievances, Mexicans Turn to Bureaucracy Contest". New York Times. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  14. ^ Campbell, Jesse W.; Pandey, Sanjay K.; Arnesen, Lars (2022). "The ontology, origin, and impact of divisive public sector rules: A meta-narrative review of the red tape and administrative burden literatures". Public Administration Review.
  15. ^ "". Retrieved 2014-01-23.
  16. ^ "Canada's Red Tape Report". Archived from the original on 2014-02-01. Retrieved 2014-01-23.
  17. ^ Times, The Hill (2019-02-07). "How to reduce the regulatory burden". The Hill Times. Retrieved 2021-10-25.
  18. ^ European Commission[dead link]
  19. ^ Verheugen, Günter (June 20, 2008). "Cutting redTape for Europe". Action Programme for Reducing Administrative Burdens in the European Union. European Commission Directorate-General Enterprise and Industry. Archived from the original on July 20, 2011. Retrieved October 14, 2020.
  20. ^ a b Herd, Pamela; Moynihan, Donald P. (2019). Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means. Russell Sage Foundation. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-61044-878-9.
  21. ^ Peeters, Rik (2019-06-06). "The Political Economy of Administrative Burdens: A Theoretical Framework for Analyzing the Organizational Origins of Administrative Burdens". Administration & Society. 52 (4): 566–592. doi:10.1177/0095399719854367. ISSN 0095-3997. S2CID 195561302.
  22. ^ Burden, Barry C.; Canon, David T.; Mayer, Kenneth R.; Moynihan, Donald P. (2012). "The Effect of Administrative Burden on Bureaucratic Perception of Policies: Evidence from Election Administration". Public Administration Review. 72 (5): 741–751. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6210.2012.02600.x. ISSN 0033-3352. JSTOR 41687989.
  23. ^ Heinrich, Carolyn J. (2015-12-08). "The Bite of Administrative Burden: A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation". Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. 26 (3): 403–420. doi:10.1093/jopart/muv034. ISSN 1053-1858.
  24. ^ Herd, Pamela; Moynihan, Donald P. (2019). Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means. Russell Sage Foundation. p. 22. ISBN 978-1-61044-878-9.

Further reading[edit]

  • George et al. (2020) Red Tape, Organizational Performance and Employee Outcomes: Meta-Analysis, Meta-Regression and Research Agenda. Public Administration Review.
  • Barry Bozeman (2000) Bureaucracy and Red Tape Prentice-Hall Publishing.
  • Pamela Herd (2019). Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means. Russell Sage Foundation. ISBN 978-0871544445.
  • OECD (2006) 'Cutting red tape; national strategies for administrative simplification' OECD Editions, Paris.