Monday, October 03, 2005

Nimble Bureaucracies

People tend to think of bureaucracies as organizations bound in inextricable red tape, where neither the employees nor the customers have any ability to change "the system". Exhibit A recently was FEMA requiring sexual-harassment training of firefighters who had volunteered to help after Katrina hit:
"They've got people here who are search-and-rescue certified, paramedics, haz-mat certified," said a Texas firefighter. "We're sitting in here having a sexual-harassment class while there are still [victims] in Louisiana who haven't been contacted yet."

The firefighter, who has encouraged his superiors back home not to send any more volunteers for now, declined to give his name because FEMA has warned them not to talk to reporters.
At, Daniel Henninger lays the blame squarely on the bureaucratic mindset:
A reality-check will reveal that we remain a government of men, not superheroes. A grimmer reality is that we remain a government of bureaucracies. The more serious question that Katrina lays before us, one no congressional panel will touch, is whether after 75 years of uncapped growth, our domestic bureaucratic system is simply too fat to answer the fire bell.

Throwing Michael Brown into the media shark tank isn't going to divert a public that is now acutely focused on the problem of modern bureaucratic dysfunction. Yes, we endure lines at the department of motor vehicles. It was ever thus. But last year the 9/11 Commission report described in detail the failure of the national-security bureaucracy to protect us from terrorism. And now Katrina. Looks like the problem here is a lot deeper than a bureaucratic failure to communicate.

I once read a description of a bureaucracy as an organization that can operate for six months with no input and no output before anyone notices. That's because the activity is self-generated: meetings, memos, action items, studies about studies, in-house training, and compliance checks. Complexity and diffusion of purpose breeds more bureaucrats and more rules.

There are reasons for the rules: they help ensure that similar situations receive similar treatment, and common exceptions can be dealt with reasonable efficiency. The problems arise when the rules can't handle the situations faced by the bureaucrats and the managers aren't empowered to ditch the rules and improvise. Having managers (especially lawyers) in charge who enforce a defensive mindset does not create a nimble workforce. As Peggy Noonan notes,

We live in the age of emergency, however, and in that age we hunger for someone to take responsibility. Not authority, but a sense of "I'll lead you out of this." On 9/11 the firemen took responsibility: I will go into the fire. So did the mayor: This is how we'll get through, this is how we'll triumph.

In New Orleans, by contrast, the mayor seemed panicked, the governor seemed medicated, and the airborne wasn't there until it was there and peace was restored. Until then no one took responsibility. There was a vacuum. But nature abhors a vacuum, so rumors and chaos came in to fill it. Which made things worse.

No one took charge. Thus the postgame commentary in which everyone blamed someone else: The mayor fumbled the ball, the governor didn't call the play, the president didn't have a ground game.
Having been a US Civil Servant for several years, I know firsthand that the corporate culture of the organization makes a huge difference in how it functions, even within government. I worked for a Navy command that proclaimed "Fleet Support is Our Heritage". Staying focused on serving our sailors and their ships meant a culture where people worked very hard to work through or work around red tape when it impeded the main mission. Doing a temporary stint in Washington, though, with the endless meetings and bureaucratic churn, made me yearn for the comparative freedom of my home command.

I've been aboard ships where the crew stood adamant on their written regulations to the detriment of the training we were trying to provide, and on others where the crew was flexible and eager to see how far they could push their warfighting systems. The difference was the tone set by each Captain and his senior officers.

Leadership matters a lot in bureaucracies. So do having a clear purpose and taking responsibility for actions. Those are qualities that the military cultivates, which is why they generally perform well in emergencies. The military practices, practices, and practices even more to be ready to deal with whatever surprises and disasters await them -- deployed or not. [The crew of the USS San Antonio (LPD 17), which is under construction in Pascagoula, came to the assistance of the shipyard personnel during and after Hurricane Katrina roared through!]

Likewise, many local and state governments understand the need for disaster preparedness, and train constantly. Florida officials rebuked their Mississippi and Louisiana brethren for lack of preparedness:

"If we weren't prepared, and we didn't do our part, no amount of work by FEMA could overcome the lack of preparation," [Gov. Jeb Bush] said. Natural Hazards Center director Kathleen Tierney agreed, saying emergency planners in the Gulf states should have taken a tip from the jazz legends that made New Orleans famous.

"Organizational improvisation" is essential to cope with unpredictable events such as Katrina, Tierney said. "Research on jazz musicians shows that people don't just pull stuff out of the air when they're improvising. These are people with an extremely wide knowledge of musical genres. They have always practiced and practiced and practiced. Similarly, improvising involves a deep understanding of the resources you have at hand in your community."

Nimble bureaucracies do exist. They have strong leaders, clear purpose, good teamwork, and operational flexibility. That's something President Bush and Congressional leaders might keep in mind as they prepare to "fix" FEMA.

Update 10/12/05: See my follow-on post, "Improvisation and Bureaucracies"