Tag Archives: bureaucracy

NCTC likely focus of terror report

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It appears the forthcoming terror report will implicate the young National Counterterrorism Center:

Without naming the agency, he put the National Counterterrorism Center, the new entity formed after 9/11 to do precisely this function, squarely in his crosshairs.

Until the report (to be released today) has been fully dissected and cross-examined, it is impossible to say whether President Obama is pointing his finger at the right culprit. Of all the parts of the complex system and of all of the post-9/11 reforms, I would have considered the NCTC to be one of the better functioning.

I wouldn’t, but Dr. Feaver (great name) will likely know more than I on the matter.  The reasons I wouldn’t expect it to be one of the better functioning organizations in the IC are

  1. The organization is new, and was created in a relative panic;
  2. Its function is merely coordination–admittedly a tough job–without authority; and
  3. The turf-protectiveness of the IC almost guarantees that the NCTC’s analysis would be incomplete.

I harbor a great deal of respect for the many talented individuals who labor within dysfunctional, unnecessarily competitive intel organizations.  Intel reform has clearly not worked–in fact, there really hasn’t been reform.  Adding layers of bureaucracy, especially without real power, is not reform at all.  Pointing fingers and sacking people is often the politically astute path, but it almost guarantees that we’ll have this discussion again.

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Cowen: Examples of successful government bureaucracies

Tyler Cowen addresses the useful and timely question, “what are some examples of successful government bureaucracies?”:

Wars aside, here is a short and very incomplete list: the NIH, the Manhattan Project, U.C. Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Fairfax County, the World Trade Organization, the urban planners of postwar Germany, some of the Victorian public works and public health commissions, most of what goes on in Singapore, anywhere that J.S. Bach worked.

The European Union has been very good for eastern Europe.  I’ll leave aside the health care issue because we’ve debated that plenty already.  The real question is what all these examples have in common.

I would add–as one commenter did–the Tennessee Valley Authority.  For commonality, I would throw out that most of these (if not all) have some sort of urgency about their objectives.  That point’s debatable, but what isn’t all that debatable is that bureaucracies without urgency and big missions tend to be cumbersome.

Week in Public Organizations, 29Jun2009


Fairly quiet week last week (or maybe it was just me–or certain pop stars, sex symbols, and TV pitchmen).  Anyway, regulation and distrust, bureaucracy in the Metro crash, Fed hides the juice from SEC, the on-again off-again revolution in Iran, and using chopper drones to nab pirates; these are a few of the stories that splattered against the windshield last week:

Study: regulation correlated with distrust
Metro crash victims face bureaucracy
Fed fools SEC in banks’ shotgun wedding
Parsing the predicted revolution
Chopper drone hunts pirates

Metro crash victims face bureaucracy

I wonder if the epilogue to the stages of grief is bureaucracy:

Asked to identify her body, they pinpointed the mole on her lip and her finely arched eyebrows. Their daughter’s life was now boiled down to a bureaucratic moniker — Case No. 09-01458 — on a Proof of Death certificate.

As they wheeled into an expanse of parking lots, they had a hard time finding the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Straight up? No, go to the right! I know where it is! No, that’s the court supervision building!

They parked on a gravelly lot, littered with crushed soda cups, plastic forks and flattened cases of mints.

“Here we go,” Erwin said, climbing the stairs to the morgue, “Bldg. 27” written on the front door. “Big one.”

These vignettes, in typical Washington Post human interest story style, say little about the background processes of the bureaucracy that will remain invisible to all but the families of the nine fatalities, the seventy some injured, and the Metro organization and NTSB who try to piece together what happened.  Of course, there will be lawsuits and other claims that make it into the public record, and these processes will drag out possibly for years.

Behind it all, it seems unusually cruel that the victims–both physical and organizational–will be thrown into the bureaucracy to work out its processes while working out their pain.  Yet, it is only the worst system except for all the others.

One would hope, but with little optimism, that the inevitable review study will take into account organizational factors in the same way the Columbia board and 9/11 commission did.  It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Are there options for GM beyond cars?

There’s no lack of pessimism about GM’s prospects under majority-government ownership:

GM’s main problems are

1)  A terrible, bloated cost structure
2)  A terrible, bloated bureaucracy
3)  A bunch of meh car lines

Which of these is the government going to solve?  That terrible, bloated cost structure supports a bloated union whose jobs are the entire rationale for the government intervention.  Leaning on the parts suppliers just risks UAW jobs further down the supply chain.  Maybe we can take it out of the budget for copy paper and pencils.

Forgive me if I am skeptical that the government is going to show GM how to streamline its bureaucracy.  Nor do governments historically have a good record as cutting-edge auto designers.

That sounds about right.  There are a lot of improbable but not impossible scenarios, but using government influence to spur a bureaucracy to suddenly become competitive with Honda and Toyota?  That seems about as close to impossible as any proposition I’ve heard.

I’ve wondered in recent days if this isn’t a matter of rigid mental models:  we have to keep doing this because this is what we do.  Might it not be possible to envision retooling industry, suppliers, and workforce to produce something more relevant, desirable, and practical than GM’s current offerings?  I’m talking about (partially) getting out of cars, and instead using the infrastructure and labor available to make a far more diverse portfolio of products that people need and can afford.

What might be in that portfolio?  I haven’t a clue.  Many of the things people buy now aren’t things at all, and the components of the automotive industry seem ill-suited to producing high-tech products.  I think the idea is worth exploring, though.  There is an infrastructure that can produce things in volume that can be had at a historically low price.  An entrepreneur should be able to see the opportunity there.

Timothy Noah labels terrorists stupid, lucky, dysfunctional

Timothy Noah has an excellent series on Slate examining the lack of follow-up terrorist attacks in the US after September 11, 2001.  Today’s theme is whether terrorists are masterminds; his answer is “no”:

Nearly eight years after the attacks, it remains physically sickening to review these for-want-of-a-nail details about what the U.S. government knew prior to 9/11. The various intelligence agencies’ failures to pool their knowledge about the plot should surprise no one familiar with Washington’s bureaucratic culture. But it’s equally true that to count on so extreme a degree of government dysfunction, as al-Qaida effectively did, was foolhardy in the extreme. The terrorists took an unacceptably high risk that they’d get caught, and, just barely, they beat the odds. That they succeeded does not prove they were smart to try.

I subscribe to this theory as well.  Noah’s analysis and selection of others’ analyses points to a set of organizations at least as dysfunctional as any other:

Are terrorists dumb?

It may be that Bin Laden’s family wealth and otherworldly dedication far outstrip his native intelligence. (Al-Zawahiri appears to be the brains of the operation.) But the real question isn’t whether terrorists are smart per se but whether they are rational. “Acts of terrorism almost never appear to accomplish anything politically significant,” prominent game theorist Thomas C. Schelling observed nearly two decades ago. Max Abrahms, a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, reaffirmed that conclusion in a 2006 paper for International Security titled, “Why Terrorism Does Not Work.” Abrahms researched 28 groups designated “foreign terrorist organizations” by the U.S. State Department since 2001, identifying among them a total of 42 objectives. The groups achieved those objectives only 7 percent of the time, Abrahms concluded, and the key variable for success was whether they targeted civilians. Groups that attacked civilian targets more often than military ones “systematically failed to achieve their policy objectives.” [emphasis added]

In 2004 I wrote a post gently mocking al Qaeda for being just another organization and far more impotent than the fear attributed them would indicate:

There are several issues that remain to be explored in subsequent posts, including al Qaeda’s matrixed organization and its lack of a comprehensive pension plan. For now it is enough to say that the evil antagonist has followed some predictable patterns and is interesting not in its uniqueness so much as its adherence to familiar norms and rules of organization. This analogy will likely cause some discomfort among those used to the fear and loathing associated with al Qaeda, but attempting to understand it is one way to disarm the fear the terrorists seek to provoke.

There are a handful of implications flowing from these assessments, including the potential to stem terrorist recruitment by portraying the organizations as ineffectual.  There is also the possibility that some groups will study these findings and work to address their shortcomings, but that kind of introspection is rare in most organizations.  I’m inclined to think that Noah is on point, and that the financial crisis is far scarier.

Wikinomics: Gov2.0 challenges relate to people and institutions

As someone who worked in the e-Government trenches almost a decade ago, so much of what I see in Government 2.0 highlights how far we’ve come and how fundamental the challenges remain:

Government 2.0 is about much more than blogs, wikis and social networking. It’s about how the government sources expertise and how it orchestrates capability. It’s about marshalling the collective intelligence of society to address big issues like climate change and fiscal reform. It’s also about delivering services like education, health care and social security benefits more effectively by treating citizens as co-innovators rather than passive, inert consumers.

Social media has a role to play. But the hard problems relate to the people and institutions. A complex machinery of government has grown organically over the past century with multiple levels of government, hundreds of agencies, and overlapping lines of accountability. The complexity makes it difficult to implement reforms and change in the public sector is almost always slow and incremental.

Never was about the technology.  Still isn’t.