The Government Disaster Monopoly

I have written a number of times that one of the problems with the Katrina aftermath was not that the federal government did too little, but that they try to do too much.  For example:

While turning down offers to help, when everyone agrees not enough
is being done, may seem unthinkable, these are actually predictable
outcomes from a [government] bureaucracy of technocrats.  Technocrats value process
over results, order and predictability over achievement.  More
important than having problems fixed is having an ordered process,
having everything and everyone under control.  In this context, you can
imagine their revulsion at the thought of having private citizens
running around on their own in the disaster area trying to help
people.  We don't know where they are!  We don't know what they are
doing!  They are not part of our process!  Its too chaotic! Its not
under control!

Nearly everyone who is in government has a technocratic impulse -
after all, if they believed that bottom up efforts by private citizens
working on their own was the way to get things done, they would not be
in government trying to override those efforts.  But most emergency
organizations are off the scale in this regard.  99% of their time,
they don't actually have an emergency to deal with - they are
planning.  They are creating elaborate logistics plans and procedures
and deployment plans.  Planners, rather than people of action,
gravitate to these organizations.  So, once a disaster really hits, the
planners run around in circles, hit by the dual problem of 1) their
beautiful plans are now obsolete, since any good general can tell you
that no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy and 2) they are
by nature still planners, trying to get order and process underway and
create a new updated plan, rather than just getting every possible
resource out there fixing the dang problem.

Kerry Howley in Reason's Hit and Run discusses a similar problem in Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the deadly Tsunami:

A year and a half after the deadliest tsunami in recorded history, a
pan-Asian warning system seems about as likely as, say, competent
airport security stateside. So Sri Lankans have poured donations into
DIY monitoring stations, using the Web and volunteers to watch for quakes...

How do officials react to the exciting new world of distributed warning technology?

But the government does not want ad-hoc tsunami warning centres handing out advice to local communities.

"Only the Met Department is authorised to give tsunami warnings and
evacuation orders. They cannot do it. It is illegal. That creates
unnecessary panic," Darmaratne said.

Just as in the Katrina aftermath, the government answer is that we would rather have nothing happen than positive efforts occur that we don't control (or take credit for).

One Comment

  1. Matt:

    I doubt it's about "credit". Post-Katrina, no one cunning enough to rise to a position of importance in government is going to be so deluded as to think that having their name attached to disaster-recovery is a ticket to glory.

    Even "control" seems a bit of a reach, given how all three layers of government's DR agencies allowed utter anarchy to spread in New Orleans. No true control freak would ever stick with a course that was allowing that to happen. If control is your thing, then the plan you've got is great until you _lose_ control, and then you immediately throw it out and do something else, in order to regain control. Didn't happen here.

    It's process. They're process addicts, and they always will be. Bureaucracies are process-focused institutions, and hence one's ability to rise to the top of a bureaucracy is critically limited to whatever degree one is _not_ a process addict. The selective pressure is enormous. These people work in a culture where it doesn't matter what goes wrong as a result of what you do, so long as you were following the established process. If the process produces bad results, the worst thing that can happen to you is that you'll be forced to go on TV and badmouth your now-retired predecessor for having written it. But if you _deviate_ from the process, there's literally no limit to the amount of blame that can be heaped upon you from all sides, both for things that are legitimately the result of your mistakes, and for things that aren't your fault at all, but for which some other bureaucrat needs a scapegoat. The potential upside, on the other hand, is tiny...if everything just miraculously happens to go EXACTLY right, then your new idea might become the new process...for which you'll be blamed, when your successors apply it in a situation to which it's not well-suited.

    Under selective pressures like that, even if a person is psychologically normal when they enter government "service", there's almost no way to avoid becoming a hardcore process addict long before achieving any significant power.