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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Cage-Busting and Cat Fur

By Rick Hess — November 17, 2014 2 min read
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I’ve been talking about the notion of “cage-busting” for several years now. The concept is simple: organizations evolve to do certain things, but successful organizations outlive their original design. The trick is, it’s hard for organizations to change established policies and practices in order to keep up with a changing reality. That means, if you enter a school or school system in its tenth year, much less its one hundred and tenth, you run face first into lots of older rules, regulations, and routines that no longer make a lot of sense. These are the bars that are welded into the cage.

On Friday, the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold penned a piece that crisply illuminated the cage in a field outside of education. The picture isn’t necessarily pretty. Fahrenthold’s story addressed Congress’s bipartisan vote to finally cancel 48 official reports that have been routinely required from federal agencies. (Background: If you missed it, back in May, the Post reported that there are 4,291 congressionally mandated reports, of which hundreds or thousands appear to be costly, time-consuming, and utterly pointless.)

Fahrenthold wrote:

Among the reports to be eliminated is . . . one on dog and cat fur protection, which . . . dates from 2000, a time when Congress was worried about illicit imports of coats made with dog and cat fur. So it passed a law requiring U.S. Customs and Border Protection to produce an annual report on its efforts to identify and seize the items.

After that, the problem abated. Congress lost interest.

But the law stayed on the books.

So the government continued to produce the fur report -- an effort that often involved 15 federal employees from six different offices. Upon completion, the report was sent to seven committees on Capitol Hill. None of them found it useful.

The bill that passed the House on Wednesday would eliminate other largely useless reports. They include an annual summary of the effects of the Andean Trade Preference Act of 1991 and a Veterans Affairs report on health-care purchases, which had reported no dramatic changes in 23 years.

That’s the cage. Federal employees have to spend time, money, and energy filling out unnecessary reports because . . . well, because it seemed like a good idea at the time, and then it just keeps going. A few reports would be no big deal, if that was the whole of it. But multiply those reports by a thousand old rules that touch everything under the sun and you have professionals who feel swamped, can tell their time isn’t valued, and spend so much time checking boxes that compliance becomes job one.

This dynamic isn’t unique to the public sector. It happens at big private organizations, too, including places like the United Way or General Motors. The thing is that, in the private sector, new organizations are always emerging and old ones are eventually folding. The new organizations get to start from scratch, while the old ones take their outdated rules and routines with them.

In schools and many other government activities, on the other hand, rules, regulations, and routines have no expiration date. Stripping anachronistic time-wasters becomes the charge of the cage-buster, whether in a school system or a federal agency. And doing so, whether that involves reworking schedules that stymie PLCs or cat fur reports that overwhelm skilled staff, can be the key to tackling the stuff that really matters.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.