The Power to Say "Yes"

Bruce McQuain tells some stories of bureaucratic frustration in the Gulf, as local governors trying to protect their state from the spill fights against a myriad of mindless bureaucracies.

The governor said the problem is there's still no single person giving a "yes" or "no." While the Gulf Coast governors have developed plans with the Coast Guard's command center in the Gulf, things begin to shift when other agencies start weighing in, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's like this huge committee down there," Riley said, "and every decision that we try to implement, any one person on that committee has absolute veto power."

I would state the problem differently.  In the Federal bureaucracy, seemingly everyone has the power to say "no," and absolutely no one is willing to risk their career or even a minor bureaucratic sanction to over-rule when someone else in the room says "no."  I have seen it a hundred times in my business -- we will be close to doing something for the public, building a new shower building in a campground for example, and some government employee in the room will say that their sister's gynecologist's barber's housekeeper once overheard a conversation in a bar that some guy who may have visited a university once said he had heard a rumor that there might have been a Native American settlement somewhere within 100 miles of that spot 10,000 years ago -- and suddenly the work on the shower has to stop for 6 months while we all run around calling in archeologists and taking this concern seriously.

The problem  in a government discussion, particularly a multi-agency discussion, is that EVERYONE can say "no," and worse, since their incentives are loaded towards risk avoidance (they get punished for violating procedure, but never punished for missing an opportunity), they have a tendency to say "no" a lot, in fact to say "no" by default.  In the Gulf you have a thousand federal employees from 20 agencies whose entire incentive system, whose entire career, whose every lesson from every bureaucratic battle in a sort of long-term aversion therapy, prompts them to say "no" by reflex.

What is missing is someone who can say "yes," and make it stick against all the no's.  That does not have to be Obama -- but it probably does have to be someone very senior who knows (and who everyone else knows) is backed to the hilt by the President and has an incentive system where the only measure of success is more or less oil damage, and thus for whom aggrieved bureaucrats (even senior ones) and petty procedure are irrelevant.  It does not appear such a person has been appointed.

Postscript: By the way, I don't want folks to fall into the trap of thinking that these government folks are necessarily bad people.  I think that is a mistake both conservatives and liberals make -- conservatives vilify government employees, while liberals want to believe that government would work right if we just had the right people in it.   I work with a lot of very bright, very good people in government.  The problem is that their incentives and information are awful.  How would you behave if for 20 years your main feedback was to be criticized for violating minor procedures or trying new things?  How would you have any understanding of business if you grew up in the bizarro world of government budgeting and accounting?   This is the problem with government - not that it is full of bad stupid people, but it takes good smart people and incentivizes them do counter-productive things.

Update: Here is a great example, from Kevin Drum, who is a smart guy but can't do anything but dither in a decision among multiple risks:

It's pretty hard to take the other side of this argument [ie defending the Coast Guard's decision to hold up the GUlf cleanup barges for minor rules violations]. But I wonder. We are, after all, talking about barges that are sucking up oil, and the last time I checked oil was pretty damn flammable. Everyone wants the cleanup operation to proceed with breakneck speed, but that's exactly when people get tired and sloppy. And I wonder what everyone would think of the Coast Guard's ridiculous rules if they waived them and then some boat went up in a huge fireball because a spark caught somewhere and no one had a fire extinguisher handy?

I will say again - I have been in many rooms of bureaucrats, both federal and private, and they all think this way.  These rooms are full of Kevin Drum's wondering out loud, "I don't know, what happens if..."  This is such a common phrase in these meetings I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard it.  Then everyone in the room defers to this hypothetical risk.   Bureaucrats are always more worried about sins of commission  (e.g. knowingly allowing a barge to go out without enough fire extinguishers in violation of guidelines) than the sin of omission (e.g. delay will allow the spill to get worse).  Even when the omission is 100% certainty and the danger from the act of commission is vaguely hypothetical.  It takes a leader to say "send the damn barges out now."


  1. mesaeconoguy:

    I don’t want folks to fall into the trap of thinking that these government folks are necessarily bad people.

    They’re not overtly evil; they’re vacuously naïve, but evil nonetheless:

    Goo-goos: Main Entry: goo–goo
    Function: noun

    Inflected Form(s): plural goo–goos
    Etymology: from good government
    Date: 1912

    : a member or advocate of a political reform movement

  2. LoneSnark:

    So, what you are saying, is that you want an oil-spill czar capable of circumventing any and all laws and rules on the books? This sounds like a very Roman structure to implement.

    here is a silly idea: why not let BP organize the clean up, let property owners decide when their property is insufficiently clean to warrant a lawsuit, and eliminate all the rules on the books that might interfere with BP's efforts. Tada! no need for an above the law czar!

  3. Not Sure:

    "This is the problem with government – not that it is full of bad stupid people, but it takes good smart people and incentivizes them do counter-productive things."

    So... they're smart people, but just not smart enough to understand why things happen the way they do when they make their decisions.

    Or they do understand, but keep it up anyway, because they're getting paid to do it.

    Okay then.

  4. mesaeconoguy:

    BP was told what to say today in front of the nation’s finest thugs. After all, AlGore bought them off.

    And Tony responded with apologetic gusto.

    He even had the conciliatory British lisp.

    Simon Cowell, however, gave him a 4 for lip synch.

  5. anon:

    I'd argue that this is a worse kind of evil: a system that converts even good people into pawns of itself.

  6. Glenn:

    Warren, your post-script is silly. Government workers are, by definition, whores. By and large, they know what they're doing, but justify it to themselves with whatever rationalization works best in their own mind. Accepting a paycheck from the world's worst institution and telling yourself that it's OK, because "I can make a difference" is prostitution of the highest order. I am especially contemptuouos of putative conservatives who try this.

  7. Eric Hammer:

    I think some of you guys jumping on Warren's last point are missing it a little, and in fact falling right into the trap he warned about. Large beaurocracies (not just government, but it is the biggest and best example) engender exactly that kind of behavior. As he said, when you have no real autonomy and answer to a commitee of people with no real stake in change you end up with a lot of negative feedback for attempting to change proceedures or circumvent them when necessary, and learn pretty quickly that you need all sorts of ass coverage showing that you did X Y and Z by the book if anything you did turns out counter to expectations.
    That is the nature of the beast, and the government species just makes it all the worse due to the fact that there is no profit motive, no bottom line you can appeal to when those above decide you are to be punished for changing something. In business that often works, but you see the same behavior in groups seen as "cost centers". When it gets too bad, a good person either quits or learns what rules they can break and get away with to try and get the most done without getting in trouble.
    So the trouble isn't so much the people (though there are some terrible people certainly) but a process that creates the situations. As long as there is a governemnt job, someone will fill it, good or bad. The answer is to get rid of the job in the first place, not go after the people in it.

  8. William Newman:

    Glenn, that's ridiculous and vile. I'm a rabid libertarian. I'm also an arrogant physical/mathematical/computer techie and game-of-skill player, so even in libertarianly politically correct endeavors like charity or education, I tend to be irritatingly skeptical of claims of objective excellence in any field unless there is at least one politically disadvantaged group which successfully uses that field to bypass subjective prejudice elsewhere by objectively excelling in that field. So I'm naturally pretty uncharitable about most government folk. Even so, even to me your position is just absurd.

    Note, e.g., that libertarians don't have a particularly convincing non-state solution to "national security" problems. I myself might be willing to try depending on some of David Friedman's ideas, but I know I could not convince most of the people I know, and not because I think they're stupid. And your denunciation is so over-the-top that it's not limited to the US (where you could make plausible arguments that various US interventionist "defense" actions make things worse), so to justify your claim, you need to damn even someone who works for e.g. Swiss or Swedish national defense. Sorry, you lose; my prejudices do make me doubt that a randomly sampled network administrator in the Sw* armed forces is likely to be as competent as a correspondingly well-compensated individual in the private sector, but there's no way to get from that to proof of "whore" beyond a reasonable doubt.

    All of the people I've known who worked on military-related stuff have done it for the US. As in many fields generally they're doing it for the money, but they also get a noticeable amount of psychic income because they think that it's important and that they're making things better. It's difficult to argue that what they're doing is not important. I'm pretty isolationist, so I think it's relatively easy to argue that a US military activity is horribly counterproductive. But even granting that for the sake of argument, if we focus a little more narrowly, it's damned hard to make a damning case against people who focus on making sure the US can cope with high-intensity war threats from aggressive nation-states over the next decade or two. That's a very important problem which would not be improved (as, e.g., the Drug War "problem" would be vastly improved) by simply zeroing the military budget and letting the chips fall where they may. Instead, it's a problem where "the government solution is screwed up" is well answered by applying the reminder "utopia is not an option" in the reverse of the usual libertarian direction. I can criticize people working on high-intensity war on important details --- e.g., too often they want the military budget to be bigger than it actually should be. But no matter how important the criticism, "too often" (or even "far too often") cannot come close to justifying your "by definition."

    Even in government actions that most people get mindlessly enthusiastic about, like US participation in WWII, there are aspects to be legitimately creeped out or freaked out about, like Roosevelt's maneuvering (including, if I understand correctly, covertly sponsoring outright military attacks like the Flying Tigers) to provoke open war with the Japanese, or mistreatment of civilian populations during that open war (from mass-produced firestorms down to hand-crafted atrocities). But even if you put enormous weight on such criticisms, they don't apply very well to many individuals for various reasons. (E.g., many soldiers signed up only after Japan not only entered open war with the US, but did so in a way at least as sleazy as any pre-war US provocations that I'm aware of.) There are many who fought or who just worked for the government who deserve honor, sometimes great honor, beyond any reasonable criticism; someone who'd instead define them as whores doesn't himself deserve being scraped off a mule's shoe.

  9. GaryP:

    I disagree somewhat with this post.
    Bright, energetic and principled people do exist in the government service. However, they are constantly harrassed, blocked and attacked by the vast majority of govt employees that are solely concerned with empire building and avoiding work. Consequently, most of the good people in govt service are found in junior positions and they leave govt service (or give up, or convert to the dark side to get promoted.)
    I suspect that the same thing is true in unions, and it is certainly true in academic organizations and the military. Warriors do well until they reach LT COl or COL. To become a general, you must, except in time of war (and even then in most cases) be a politician focused on everything but the mission and your people to be successful.
    I think it is a law of large organizations.

  10. dr kill:

    You're wrong. They are all evil.

  11. Bill:

    Even the most powerful guy, Obama, has shown a willingness to compromise the containment/clean-up effort in order not to upset the unions. Otherwise, he would have suspended the Jones Act and jumped on the offers by foreign experts who have valuable experience in dealing with oil spills.

  12. Pat Moffitt:

    Having worked in the privatization field I cannot agree more with Warren regarding incentives. Failed systems are not improved by finding "better" people. My experience was many privatized "government" workers became exceptional private employees.

  13. Pat Moffitt:

    Ralph Nader held the view that all the worst abuses and failures of government were the result of bad people-and as such good government required nothing more than electing better people. George Stigler (I believe correctly) argued it did not matter who was elected -even "good people" ultimately respond to incentives. Stigler in the "Myth of Efficient Government" said politics is simply a market where legislation is bought and sold and that a government agency's historic survival was proof of efficiency.
    Gordon Tulloch's Rent Seeking Society describes how this market operates.

  14. tribal elder:

    In a bureaucracy, you can't make a wrong indecision.

    I once tried to save a federal agency about .5 million 1982 dollars (and the reporting companies $1M+) in perpetuity by having agency one's (then my employer)computer analyze the already public information a regulated industry had in agency two's computer. (I had a handshake deal with Agency Two's information gatekeeper, 80% of the technical issues addressed. We'd done a 3 month test run and it would clear up 80% of the reporting.) Or, instead of public savings, agency one could then focus on regulating the high risk part of their regulatory 'portfolio'. Agency One didn't want to save public $ nor take on the high risk part of its portfolio.

    Its still being done by hand, on paper.

  15. Bill Drissel:

    Coyote > "[Government] takes good smart people and incentivizes them do counter-productive things."

    In my life-long contact with government employees, I think that however sharp they may have been when they entered civil service, by the end of a dozen years of foot-dragging and unproductiveness, their technical skills are hopelessly out of date, their ambitions for real accomplishment are wilted and obstruction is the only thing they are good at.

    Bill Drissel
    Grand Prairie, TX

  16. Noumenon:

    I think that if Drum were leading the effort, rather than blogging about it, he would behave more like you want him to. His role is to weigh pros and cons, not to collapse them into a decision.

    The problem you're describing is not that people are raising potential disaster scenarios -- it's that no one is then addressing those disaster scenarios. You can't hire a leader to just say "Whatever, go ahead" -- what you need is a leader and a Kevin Drum, so that if the leader does say "go ahead," it's because Drum told him the risks and it's still worth it. Without Drum-type people, the "go ahead" could just reflect ignorance of the risks or a lack of searching for a solution that's safer and still fast enough.

  17. Matt:

    "however sharp they may have been when they entered civil service, by the end of a dozen years of foot-dragging and unproductiveness, their technical skills are hopelessly out of date, their ambitions for real accomplishment are wilted and obstruction is the only thing they are good at"

    If you encase Michael Jordan in a body cast for a dozen years, how well do you suppose he'll play basketball when you finally let him out of it?

    If it turns out that he stinks at it (at least compared to pro basketball players who _haven't_ been prevented from practicing for a dozen years), does that just mean that he stinks, full-stop? Or might the dozen years in a cast have rather a lot to do with it?

    Some government employees probably got into civil "service" looking to build empires or minimize their ratio of labor to compensation. Most, though, probably had what seemed like noble motives to them at the time.

    If, after a dozen years in a warren fit only for trolls, they are themselves behaviorally indistinguishable from trolls, is it really their fault, as individuals? I say no.

    Destroy the warren! Stop making more trolls!