« James Booker Open Thread | Main | Meanwhile, Elsewhere... »

September 19, 2005

Comments

Wowzer. So much for the Coast Guard's free pass thus far.

I have a bad feeling that lawsuits against the feds for such gross misdeeds will somehow be thwarted based on the "emergency" nature of the situation. The individual afraid of lawsuits might've acted more prudently if he himself had been afraid of being sued for his interference.

I suspect Anderson is right, but...I'd like to see some murder trials for that kind of thing.

Just checking in for a minute in FLL waiting for a flight. Shakespeare should have written 'First off, let's blame all the lawyers.'

Have my own little story of DHS incompetence. Friday, it was discovered that dozens of letters from Guantanamo prisoners had been sitting in the DHS mailroom, instead of being delivered to the Court Security Office at DOJ, because the people down in Gitmo (Navy employees) put the wrong zip code on them. We had a letter dated June 12 (which my colleague read, with a cleared interpreter, on Saturday). The discovery only came after one of the other lawyers pestered the DOJ folks -- they'd been told by their client that he'd sent a letter and they hadn't gotten it months later. I actaully had smoke coming out of my ears on Friday.

Checking into the internets after several days dark, I notice my http://www.scotusblog.com/movabletype/archives/2005/09/military_commis_1.html#more>motion has gotten a little attention, but no ruling yet.

Ok, back to darkness. The plane from FLL is leaving an hour early to "beat" the hurricane -- a concept that seems strange, when you think that we're flying around the eastern end of the island.

Ian Welsh

A pretty in-depth discussion of "Good Samaritan" laws, including good links in comments. Also about liability.

Not so simple.

I will admit to not grasping a lot of important details, but...surely this what executive orders are for, and particularly in the hands of a president who has (by his staff's analysis) essentially unbounded power in matters of national security.

(I also see that Louisiana provided indemnity.)

I cannot believe that any human being can be so enamored of red tape that he would rather watch someone die than break the rules. Apparently he didn't know that letting someone die because you wouldn't allow someone to bend the rules as you interpreted them is a crime.

The description of the circumstances surrounding this incident show clearly that the U.S. Coast Guard official in charge committed a crime. I doubt that anyone will charge him or imprison him, no matter how richly he deserves it. Ten years for each death should be about right.

This is just more evidence that the Vogons are in charge.

When we elect people who have such disdain for the ordinary functions of government that they put unqualified friends of friends of friends in positions of responsibility that should be reserved for experienced professionals, the predictable result is that good people leave government service; those who don't have any other options remain; and eventually you get ignorant officials needlessly ordering doctors to stop administering chest compression to dying patients.

This is an extraordinarily tenous line of explanatory reasoning. While ideologically compelling, drawing a line between Republican rule and an unreasonably bureaucratic official is not sound.

Am I to believe that no such officials existed in the Coast Guard previous to the Bush Administration and a Republican congress? Or that there are merely more such people now than there were before? That CYA didn't exist previously and won't in a glorious Democratic/Technocratic future?

For any of us definitively answer those questions based on anecdotes would be an exercise in imagination, and an indulgence of subjective perception for partisan purposes.

Good lord. Have any of you seen the Time cover story this week. Some choice quotes:

The accumulation of blunders has led a Pentagon guerrilla-warfare expert to conclude, "We are repeating every mistake we made in Vietnam."

We don't have enough intelligence analysts working on this problem. The Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] puts most of its emphasis and its assets on Iran, North Korea and China. The Iraqi insurgency is simply not top priority, and that's a damn shame.

But military-intelligence officers contend that [Franks] did not seem interested in what would come next. "He never once asked us for a briefing about what happened once we got to Baghdad," says a former Army intelligence officer attached to the invasion force. "He said, 'It's not my job.' We figured all he wanted to do was get in, get out and write his book."

Bremer says he doesn't regret [disbanding the Iraqi army], according to his spokesman Dan Senor. "The Kurds and Shi'ites didn't want Saddam's army in business," says Senor, "and the army had gone home. We had bombed their barracks. How were we supposed to bring them back and separate out the bad guys? We didn't even have enough troops to stop the looting in Baghdad."

Note to Bremer: you're off message, we have plenty of troops there.

Bremer's spokesman Senor says a significant effort was made to reach out to the tribes. But several military officials dispute that. "The standard answer we got from Bremer's people was that tribes are a vestige of the past, that they have no place in the new democratic Iraq,

Sorry, that was off-topic, though it fits in the "incompetence" vein.

words fail

And I'll just through in one last one:

"We have never taken this operation seriously enough," says a retired senior military official with experience in Iraq. "We have never provided enough troops. We have never provided enough equipment, or the right kind of equipment. We have never worked the intelligence part of the war in a serious, sustained fashion. We have failed the Iraqi people, and we have failed our troops."

Jonas beat me to it. This reasoning is extraordinarily weak. President appoints a lawyer with a stuffed resume to a job three years ago and makes a fearful bureaucrat stop people from saving lives? Good heavens.

Some people seem to have the bit in the teeth. I merely ask people to consider that the performance of all members of an organization may not be a direct function of the people at the top. (Succinctly put: everything ain't Bush's fault.) It may be just that people like this federal official would have done something stupid no matter who was elected last November.

If agencies like FEMA are so constituted as to be so vulnerable to poor leadership at the top, then that is a reason for serious change anyway; something so vital ought not be hostage to a job almost guaranteed to have frequent turnover. But there's another can of worms to open there.

"through" = "throw"

yeesh.

Jonas: I draw no line between Republican rule and incompetence. During my lifetime there have been plenty of Republicans who have respected competence.

I do believe the following: first, that the behavior described is in all likelihood a result of two things: first, the official's putting the rules above human life, and second, his misunderstanding of the relevant laws. I attribute the second to his having gotten inaccurate information from somewhere, and that to the demoralization of a lot of the relevant agencies. That's a product of Bush, not Republicans per se.

Why Republicans go on supporting someone who has, as best I can see, abandoned all their core principles is a mystery to me. But I haven't yet reached the point where I identify Bush with Republicanism, if only because there are too many good conservatives on this board to allow me to do so.

Slarrow: I hate to point this out, but you ARE aware that things like "Training" (as in "What sort?", "How often", "For Whom") tend to be the sort of things decided at high levels in organizations like this?

FEMA had two basic jobs -- one to plan for disasters, to make sure they had the resources available and ready for any conceivable situation, and the other to make sure their personnel were trained to handle the situation.

So, to answer your question, I would be in NO WAY surprised to find that training under Brown has been far less than it should be, and that the incompetence of lower-level FEMA employees has quite a bit to do with the incompetence of the people running the show.

Mind you, destroying FEMA took 5 years and the creation of DHS -- it's not like the experienced careerists up and quit on January 2nd, 2001. It takes years of neglect, poor leadership, "loyality tests", and general contempt before you see the sort of experience attrition you see at FEMA.

Consider it an open view of what Goss is trying to create at the CIA -- a workplace where "good employees" and "bad employees" have nothing to do with work ethic, experience, or skills and everything to do with loyality (personal or partisan). You then fire the "bad employees" you can, and make life so hellish -- either deliberatly or through your own incompetence -- for the rest that they quit, rather than hang on in an organization that has lost any ability to react competently.

One wonders how much we'll lose after a few years of Goss at the CIA, eh?

I merely ask people to consider that the performance of all members of an organization may not be a direct function of the people at the top. (Succinctly put: everything ain't Bush's fault.)

More succinctly put: Buck? What Buck?

Hilzoy,

I draw no line between Republican rule and incompetence.

It was I, then, who was conflating Bush and Republican rule. Replace Bush with my more general description, and my central point still stands.

I attribute the second to his having gotten inaccurate information from somewhere, and that to the demoralization of a lot of the relevant agencies. That's a product of Bush, not Republicans per se.

You have not demonstrated that this is a product of Bush. Stringing together these statements (demoralization, inaccurate information, etc.), even if we assume them all to be 100% true, does not demonstrate any causation.

That being said, if we are relying upon officials getting completely accurate information on the ground during a crisis to prevent such horrible things from happening, we are screwed. I'm quite convinced it's a bureaucratic fantasy to believe that it would take place, and that in a crisis situation common sense - and failing that, goddamn human compassion - would have to be the governing principle, not one dictated by some completely mythical uber-administrator and disseminated to his minions.

As horrible as the N.O. airport story is, it is more an indictment of bureaucracy itself than of any particular administration. Officious, arrogant, yet profoundly timid functionaries like those described cling like wood lice to the governmental animal, be it donkey or elephant.

That said, and taken out of the perhaps misleading context of the doctor's anecdote, the Zakaria quote is right f*****g on.

Morat: I would certainly be surprised to find out that the details of training were decided at the top of organizations. Typically, the higher up the chain, the more broad the decisions are. Furthermore, such a mission-critical aspect like "training" better be at the middle and lower levels which are typically filled by career employees in order to preserve vital institituional knowledge.

Of course you wouldn't be surprised if actual events met your expectations. That's a truism. But what evidence do you have that events actually have met your expectations about training and turnover? If you have news accounts of unusually high turnover and complaints about Brown before Katrina, I'd certainly be interested in hearing them. Until then, though, you're merely sharing your expectations. Nice, but hardly evidence.

As for Goss and the CIA, that's another topic. Suffice it to say I do not think the situations are analogous; I would claim the situation at the CIA has less to do with loyalty than it does insubordination, a far cry from whether the reins are tight or loose while goals are agreed upon.

Wood ticks, of course. Wood lice don't actually cling to animals, but prefer, er, wood. Ahem.

Edward_: were you interested in engaging the point, or did you just feel like taking a cheap shot?

Because if you just wanted to take a cheap shot, let's do it in a far more entertaining way. Since it's International Talk Like A Pirate Day, say something like, "Arrr, I'll take me shiny cutlass to yer reasonable point and carve a bit of pirate lingo innit. Avast there! I'll teach you to chastise me for collapsing all bloomin' human agency into the scurvy doppelganger George W., ya pointy-headed scalawag of a sea dog, you."

There now. Isn't that a lot more fun?

and second, his misunderstanding of the relevant laws

My understanding of the Good Samaritan law is that it covers the person actually giving the aid (e.g. in this case the doctor) -- are you saying that the official himself would be covered if he allowed this doctor to work and someone was thereby harmed?

slarrow: I have, at various points in my life, known more than I would have by reading the papers about various federal bureaucracies, by knowing people who worked closely with them. It matters immensely to them whether or not they are being run by competent people, and this is so regardless of how well-designed they are.

To pick a non-current example, Housing and Urban Development under Reagan was, by all accounts, a completely demoralized agency. It was run by a guy who was subsequently indicted, along with (iirc) over a dozen of his staff members, for influence peddling. Moreover, HUD was never high on Reagan's list of priorities, and he famously didn't even recognize the Secretary of HUD (whom he referred to, on one occasion, as 'Mr. Mayor'.)

During that period, an awful lot of the people at HUD who had any prospect of getting another job got one, leaving HUD staffed largely by (a) people who did not have that option, generally because of being idiots, and (b) people who were fine with the idea of working for an agency that wasn't doing anything worth doing, and was run by people who were corrupt and none too competent.

And leaving aside the federal government, I have worked for organizations where everyone believed that their jobs were worth doing, their managers were competent, and their good work would in general be noted and rewarded; and for organizations where none of these was true. If the organization I worked for were transformed from the first into the second, I'd leave too.

And every account of FEMA that I've read suggests that a lot of good people did leave during the last four years. I find this completely believable, for the reasons just mentioned. I also find it completely believable that the resulting shell of an agency would behave exactly like the FEMA we have observed in the last few weeks.

Hopefully someone can come up with the specific cite, but the numbers I read were 40% of FEMA employees were career professionals by the end of the Clinton administration vs. 20% now.

were you interested in engaging the point, or did you just feel like taking a cheap shot?

While I'm always interested in taking a cheap shot, I thought the precedent you were setting was a call for increased brevity.

If you'd like to discuss at length the concept of the snake rotting from the head down, or more to the point, managers being responsible for their staff's training and competence, then you might end on a more open-ended note next time. Snark begets snark, I always find.

IIRC I saw the story referred to in a Brad DeLong post a few days ago.

If you are not going to hold people responsible for the actions of their subordinates then what is the point of having a heirarchical organization? There seems to be a trend now toward saying approximately "Well sure, X was in charge; but we can't really hold him/her responsible for the failure, which was more systemic; it's a really big organization and it wasn't really set up properly for X to prevent the failure from happening" when something goes wrong. So the X's of the world have a nice deal going where they can exert authority but not bear responsibility. I can't quite see what the theoretical advantage of this situation is over a complete breakdown of authority.

Jeremy- The advantage is that it allows Republicans to have their cake and eat it too.

I'm curious how many folks are willing to go on record as saying both "Bush bears no major fault for the performance of FEMA in this crisis" and "Clinton bears no major fault for the performance of anti-terrorist operations in his administrations", and like that. I'm also a bit curious how one can look at FEMA's performance, regard it as just the kind of thing bureaucracies do, and not be an anarchist - if I thought that this is what I had to settle for out of a federal agency, I'd feel duty-bound to smash the state for the sake of relieving suffering. And I'm not being cute about that.

Snark begets snark, I always find.

Indeed it does, Edward_.

hilzoy: And every account of FEMA that I've read suggests that a lot of good people did leave during the last four years.

Then you have introduced new evidence upon which you relied but did not stipulate when you first made your statement. It consequently strengthens your initial chain of reasoning.

I myself have left places because of poor leadership. But I have also been wary of those who claimed such leadership was responsible for every mistake they made. In order to find how what went wrong in order to fix it, I think it useful to refrain from racing up the chain too quickly. Posts like "Still More Incompetence", I believe, run that risk, and thus I say what I do.

Bruce- I thought Clinton had done a rather good job on terrorism all things considered. Would you like to substantiate a claim that he did not.

(I agree with you about the state. Maybe we should just temporarily shut down the bureaucracy whenever they take office since they aren't capable of running it.)

I don't think the katrina situation is compable to the terroist activities during the Clinton administratin unless yu can make the case that the failure to prevent the attacks was directly attributable to Clinton appointing a key offical who was incompetent. It is especially difficult to blame Clinton for the failure to prevwent attacks during his term since he did successfully prevent what was intended to be a very major attack on the airport in Los Angeles.
I don't think FEMA's failures are characteristic of or a natural consequence of the fact that FEMA is a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are prone to certain types of misbehavior but not on the scale demonstrated after Katrina.

Frank, I think Clinton did quite well on terrorism, particularly in the face of Republican opposition that cast it all as "wag the dog" distractions. It's just that usually you find people insisting that Bush can't really get better results here but also that Clinton is responsible for not doing more about terrorism in the '90s.

slarrow says: "If you have news accounts of unusually high turnover and complaints about Brown before Katrina, I'd certainly be interested in hearing them."

I don't have direct quotes, if that's what you mean. But it is an open secret that FEMA became a hellish work environment for anyone who wasn't a Bush supporter. They'd get reassigned to something that wasn't in their area of expertise; their requests would be ignored... I'm sure a great many of them left, not only because the working environment was so unpleasant, but because the politically-motivated mistreatment would wind up endangering peoples' lives.

I do know that people left in droves.

And if you want to sneer and say they were all just Democrats anyway, chew on this quite from the American Spectator:

"What happened was that some of the best people who were working in the Administration during the first term, but who weren't necessarily Bush campaign members or weren't particularly close to the White House, jumped when they saw opportunities being filled by under-qualified but more politically connected people," says a current Administration senior staffer in a Cabinet department. "In this department we lost three quarters of the people who should have been encouraged to stay, and most of them left simply because they had received no indication they would be considered for better or different opportunities. And many of these folks would have stayed."

There it is, in plain words, from an Administration insider.

How much clearer does it have to get?

Support for claim that FEMA is demoralized and has lost good people: CNN:

"As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast three weeks ago, veteran workers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency braced for an epic disaster.

But their bosses, political appointees with almost no emergency management experience, didn't seem to share the sense of urgency, a FEMA veteran said.

"We told these fellows that there was a killer hurricane heading right toward New Orleans," Leo Bosner, a 26-year FEMA employee and union leader told CNN. "We had done our job, but they didn't do theirs." (...)

The National Emergency Management Association, a non-profit association of state directors of emergency services, also lists crisis management qualifications as a must for the next FEMA head. In a posting on its Web site, it also called for the the FEMA chief to answer directly to the president ,rather than to the secretary of Homeland Security.

Bosner agrees. He wrote a memo in 1992 that raised red flags about FEMA and helped lead to reform during the Clinton administration.

"FEMA's biggest problem is that too few people in the agency are trained to help in emergencies," he wrote. "We have good soldiers but crummy generals."

For the rest of the 1990s, FEMA improved, Bosner said. But since 2001 the agency has again become demoralized and experienced disaster experts have left.

"At FEMA ... we have actually slid backwards," he said."

Morat: I would certainly be surprised to find out that the details of training were decided at the top of organizations. Typically, the higher up the chain, the more broad the decisions are. Furthermore, such a mission-critical aspect like "training" better be at the middle and lower levels which are typically filled by career employees in order to preserve vital institituional knowledge.

Your lack of surprise is why people like you -- and the hapless Brown -- shouldn't be allowed to run organizations like FEMA.

Did you not read what I posted? FEMA had TWO jobs -- Planning for disasters and providing trained personnel for disasters.

In short, you don't think that HALF of FEMA's mandate was the sort of thing the top levels of the organization were concerened with?

You seem to think the training I'm referring to is akin to making sure everyone had their timecard training and new hire orientation.

Just to ask a question -- if you ran a firm that did NOTHING but train EMTs, would you expect the head of the firm (and his immediate two layers of underlings) to be fairly involved in the training curriculum and test results of the EMTs he's training?

Let me close my participation on this thread with this final clarification. I am not saying that the bureaucratic nature of FEMA is entirely to blame for its poor performance. I am not saying that President Bush bears no responsibility for his personnel choices because Democrats voted for Michael Brown. I do not claim that FEMA has had normally expected turnover. I am not saying that FEMA had great leadership these past few years or that DHS did a great job or that nobody did anything wrong. (Nor am I saying the opposite of any of these things.)

I am trying to be very precise in stating that some of the alleged "incompetence" may simply be the result of normal human limitations. To jump simply to an all-or-nothing responsible boogeyman (whether President Bush or FEMA or Michael Brown or Blanco or NOPD), while tempting, is ultimately problematic. I am trying to offer a word of warning about coming to premature conclusions. Folks can heed me or ignore me, whichever they prefer. No skin off my nose.

But now it's off to a meeting in which skin may be taken off my nose. Cheers, all.

slarrow: I don't blame all mistakes on Bush. I do think that there have been a lot of mistakes of this kind, more than can be attributed to human limitations alone, and that my best guess is that it reflects a demoralized agency under inept leadership.

More evidence:

"A decline in morale among FEMA employees has been captured in snapshots over the past few years.

In a 2003 survey of federal employees, FEMA ranked last among large agencies in worker satisfaction. Today, the Partnership for Public Service and the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation will release their list of "Best Places to Work" in the government, and the Department of Homeland Security, which absorbed FEMA, is next to last in the rankings -- No. 29 out of 30 large agencies.

Homeland Security employees gave low marks to their leaders in such areas as policies and practices, resources to get the job done and fair treatment, data used for the ranking show. (...)

Although FEMA's standing and morale improved during the Clinton administration, employees began to feel out of the loop during the Bush administration, the career official said. Decisions were made behind closed doors, and any sense of teamwork between political appointees and experienced employees disappeared, the official said.

Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder, Colo., said FEMA lost experienced employees after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for various reasons.

Some employees felt they were viewed as Clinton administration carryovers and not welcome in the Bush administration; some employees felt they could no longer do their jobs; and some employees were ready to leave and found opportunities in the private sector because of a demand for homeland security expertise, she said.

When FEMA was merged into Homeland Security, many FEMA employees felt they no longer counted because they saw law enforcement as the "cutting edge," Tierney said. FEMA employees believed they were losing funds and responsibilities, she added."

And slarrow -- hope your nose survives the meeting ;)

It's one thing to claim that there's been a talent drain from FEMA because of its politicization and that has caused degradation in the organization's performance; it's quite another thing to point to a particular incident and say it was caused by the talent drain.

To use a sports analogy, you can criticize a baseball manager for trading away a .333 hitter for a .200 hitter, but if in game 7 of the playoffs, the .200 hitter grounds out with runners on in the 9th inning, you can't justifiably claim that if they had just not made that trade, the .333 hitter would've gotten a hit.

kenB: I meant to be making the 'things like this happen when you appoint idiots' claim, not the 'this specific incident was caused by Bush' claim, which I agree is unknowable (at least by me, now.) I'll update it to make that clearer.

"I don't think the katrina situation is compable to the terroist activities during the Clinton administratin unless yu can make the case that the failure to prevent the attacks was directly attributable to Clinton appointing a key offical who was incompetent."

Um, first you'd have to prove the case that the failures of FEMA here were "directly attributable to [Bush] appointing a key offical who was incompetent."

If the hypothesis is that almost all, or even just the vast majority, of FEMA's failures (which we as yet only have some anecdotes, some reports, and some indicators of, enough to very strongly indicate major problems, but in no way, shape, means, or form, resembling a thorough critique) and errors and the responsibility for them lies solely with Michael D. Brown, well, I don't know what to say to that, except that I don't buy it for a second, and I have trouble respecting anyone who would.

Support for claim that FEMA is demoralized and has lost good people...

No amount of good people or their morale make enough of a difference when:

1. Evacuation orders can be given at one level of government, and at another level it can prevent people from evacuating;

2. Assumptions by the Homeland Security that "security" is what is important, in terms of not letting terrorists and criminals in, so people have to be explicitly approved and screened when they should just checked quickly and be let in to help;

3. That this misplaced concern about Security meant that there was no Security in New Orleans proper, providing a compelling reason for people not to leave their homes in order to protect them;

4. Acknoledging that compelling people to stay in New Orleans would be undesirable, they nonetheless let lawlessness spread, refuse to let people take their pets, don't let the Red Cross in, and don't use their powers to let people cross bridges because...

5. ... people are only allowed to leave NO when the government explicitly determines where you are going and how you will get there, despite the fact that they are incapable of facilitating this. Had officials allowed the survivors do what they needed to do, and allowed volunteers to do what they could, and allowed various government offers of assistance happen freely, the situation would have resolved itself far earlier and in a far more satisfactory manner.

All of these bad decisions follow from political and policy statements that have been made on a bipartisan basis and are complete disasters when implemented - i.e. "FEMA needs to take charge." No it doesn't, we saw what happens when they do. They need to coordinate, they need to facilitate, but the idea that they will be "in charge" when all infrastructure no longer works and all authority has disappeared in a major city is ridiculous.

No administrator of FEMA was going to be allowed to tell his DHS boss that "security clearance isn't important," no law was on the books preventing County officials from trapping people in New Orleans, and so on and so forth.

Until all of this sort of nonsense is honestly addressed, the same sort of thing will happen if we're in this situation again. Put a genius in charge, put a moron in charge. No damn difference.

Avast! Here be strawmen gladiators!

(And with that unhelpful addition, I'm out for the duration.)

Sorry, Jonas, that last warn't for ye.

I find it interesting that the folks who claim that corporate executives deserve to be paid tremendous amounts of money because their skill and leadership managed to increase the profitability of the company a bit are unwilling to blame Bush when his skill and leadership have turned the Federal Government into a slag heap.

My personal experience is that good leaders are good because they listen and recognize good advice and good new ideas, bad leaders are bad because they allow their preconceptions or prejudices to substitute for new information.

Sorry, Jonas, that last warn't for ye.

Ye had a premonition!

I find it interesting that the folks who claim that corporate executives deserve to be paid tremendous amounts of money because their skill and leadership managed to increase the profitability of the company a bit are unwilling to blame Bush when his skill and leadership have turned the Federal Government into a slag heap...

There be strawmen here! Y'arrgh!

I find it interesting that the folks who claim that corporate executives deserve .....

Are you thinking of particular folks here or just making a general comment?

Whether or not the incident in Hilzoy's post is "Bush's fault," it's obviously FEMA's fault. Authority for flown-in doctors to help people rates really high on the "obviousness" scale. Junior staffers should've been kept busy drafting guidelines, etc. This is actually the kind of thing bureaucracy should be GOOD at. "Ooh! Let's sit around all day imagining situations and writing rules for them! Pass the popcorn!"

I don't really understand the complacency I've heard. FEMA was supposed to write the book on What To Do When It All Falls Down, and they didn't, and the result was everybody acting like they hadn't read the book. Which they hadn't. Because there wasn't one.

Bush is indirectly responsible for this because it was a perfectly foreseeable consequence of appointing a totally unqualified hack to what, after 9/11 if not before, should have looked like a Really Important Job.

Those who disagree are, regrettably, mistaken. :)

Oh, thanks for the update, hilzoy -- I was reading it as making the stronger claim. As clarified, your point is certainly defensible, though my ignorance of both emergency management and bureaucracy is extensive enough to prevent me from either agreeing or disagreeing with it.

Talking about incompetence, why isn't the community piling on this?

I interviewed with DHS for a job with the (to-be-formed) Domestic Nuclear Detection Organization. I was underwhelmed by the experience due to fact that the organization seemed to be thrashing around vigorously without any clear direction. I got the position, but had to wait 5 months until an internal turf war could be sorted out over who exactly would be paying my salary. In the intervening period I interviewed with the Nuclear Emergency Search Team. The contrast could not have been more stark. Everyone I talked to at NEST knew exactly what they were doing, enjoyed the job, and was empowered to take decisions as needed on the spot. The structure of NEST is based on the Navy SEAL teams (in fact the previous director was a former SEAL), and they push authority down to the person on the spot whenever it is practical. It really shows, both in the morale of the team members and in their complete dedication to doing the best job possible. As part of the interview process I had to interview not only with the person who would be my superior, but also with all of the people who would be my peers and everyone over whom I would have authority - they all had input into the hiring decision. That is how you build a team you can really rely on when the shit hits the fan.

I've since taken a position that doesn't involve a 2+ year security clearance process, and with much lower probability of getting me killed, but I made a point of telling DHS that the reason I didn't take the job with them was that I lacked confidence in their overall competence. This was the week before Katrina hit. Nothing I've seen since has made me regret the decision. The only positive side of the whole experience was the NEST interview process - it's good to know that even though the department officially tasked with keeping us safe from nuclear incidents doesn't know its ass from a hole in the ground, there is a little known division of the Department of Energy that can be relied on to pick up the pieces. As long as DHS doesn't get in the way.

The folks who claim that corporate executives deserve to be paid piles of money are corporate executives. They historically aggregate all credit to themselves yet try to disperse blame amongst all but themselves ("prior mistakes" being a big favorite). Forty years of reading the financial press persuades me that the problem is getting worse, not better, despite laws like Sarbanes-Oxley intended to make executives take responsibility.

The Bush Administration has already demonstrated that it is incapable of managing the assignments that it has been given or taken for itself. Corporate executives have been incomprehensibly mum about the lack of competence being shown by our first MBA president.

All-purpose shorter slarrow: George W. Bush should always be given the benefit of the doubt.

Returned from meeting, nose still intact.

Morat: happily, I'd never be interested in running an organization like FEMA. (Not quite sure what that has to do with anything; sounds like the beginning of an ad hominem, but I'll let that pass.)

Of course I read your post. But the part of my post that I think you glossed over was when I said that I wouldn't expect the top echelon to be concerned with the details of training. In an organization like FEMA in which the top people are bound to be replaced fairly frequently (as administrations change hands), I would hope such fundamental issues like "who trains?", "how often?", and "does what?" are at the lower levels of the organization in jobs typically staffed by permanent employees who are far closer to the people actually receiving the training so that they can monitor progress most closely.

The term I'm thinking of here is "micromanagement", and I would see micromanagement on the part of political appointees to an organization to be a real problem, just as I think it would be a problem for the CEO of a company to start showing people how to stuff envelopes.

To finish up: you have no basis for knowing what I considered training to be, so the assumption you made about time cards is way off. As for the firm you mentioned, my expectations are a function of the size of the company. If the firm in question has something like 500 employees, I would not expect the kind of in-depth involvement from the top echelon of management (with the exception of the head of the training program.) For a small business, I would not necessarily expect the top person/people to be so involved, but I would expect the next level to be. For a firm with frequent turnover at the top (like a government organization prone to political appointments), I would certainly hope such details remained isolated from the potential of political screwups in order to retain instititional memory of vital information (which, of course, can't happen if leadership drives people away, the contention made about FEMA.)

I hope that addresses your concerns. If it doesn't--well, that tells me what I need to know.

polenta: thank you for that comment. Being new to the board, I'm still learning with whom I can have productive debate and whom to avoid as a waste of time. Such insights aid me in my classification.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad