How government can regain the capacity to control and manage environmental disasters
Posted by David Kassel on June 11, 2010
On a recent segment of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the folks around the table were discussing the federal government’s seeming inability to get BP to act with urgency and effectiveness in stopping the oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico.
Much of the discussion, of course, concerned the damage to the environment that is being compounded daily by the spreading oil. But there was also frustration expressed by just about everyone at the table at the government’s “loss of capacity” to do anything about it.
It does seem that we used to be a “can do” nation that could win wars unambiguously, land men on the moon, and respond effectively to disasters. But it seems we have lost much of our capacity in recent years, not only to accomplish great public undertakings, but even to manage the growing number of private sector actors that have moved in to fill the vacuum.
Why is this? Have we, in fact, become a “hollow state” in which public agencies have little ability left to do anything other than rubber stamp corporate activities, many of which seem irresponsible if not downright destructive? From the reconstruction of Iraq to the Big Dig in Boston, we no longer seem to be able to control spiraling costs or ensure top quality in the results.
In fact, the related managerial trends of privatization, decentralization, and deregulation have combined in the past couple of decades to reduce government’s capacity to act effectively in these instances. The Government Accountability Office reported that while the amount of federal contracting rose by 11 percent between 1997 and 2001, the size of the federal workforce devoted to managing contracts decreased by 5 percent. This phenomenon has certainly been true at the state and local levels as well.
The late academic scholar Larry Terry pointed to a loss in “institutional memory” in government due to the departure of “institutional elders–those individuals who possess extensive knowledge, expertise, and valuable information about an organization’s history…” Some of this governmental loss in capacity is the result of downsizing trends in government that took root in the Reagan years and continued during the Clinton years and during the presidencies of Bush 1 and 2. The New Public Management, which was promoted by the Clinton administration, promoted “market driven management,” which advocated increased privatization of government services and the use of private sector practices and technologies within government.
Meanwhile, countless politicians, from state legislators to presidents, have built their political careers on criticizing government as too big, bureaucratic, and ineffective. The result, however, is that we now have a government in this country that may be a little less big, but still seems bureaucratic and even more ineffective.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t undertake great projects anymore or that government is doomed to impotence in controlling oil spills and other disasters. Take the oil spill in the Gulf. Government still has the capacity to act effectively in situations like that. It simply has to act smarter.
First, political leaders and public managers must resist the temptation to muddle through these crises with ad-hoc decisions that seem to change each day on the basis of news reports and polling. The president needs to establish an environmental crisis team that can respond immediately to situations such as the oil spill, similar to the crisis team that advises him during national security emergencies.
When an environmental crisis occurs, the president and his team must immediately develop a coherent plan for dealing with it. That process must involve a careful analysis and definition of the problem the team is facing. The president and all team members must constantly question their presumptions about the problem and its possible solutions. From day one, such a team could have held a series of meetings in which they asked themselves: what methods of stopping the oil leak are likely to be the most successful and to stop it the fastest? BP engineers and executives as well as outside oil industry and environmental experts should have been called in to the meetings.
Many collateral issues should have been explored in the meetings as well, including the best options for cleaning up the already-spilled oil, the safety of the chemical dispersant being used by BP, and how the oil-capping and cleanup activities would be financed.
The project plans that emerged from that process would have clear scopes of work for BP and others to accomplish as well as clear penalties for failure to meet the specifications. Then, once the plans had been put into effect, the president and his crisis team would be well-positioned to monitor and assess the project activities in accordance with the plans.
Both public and private-sector organizations have always suffered from a lack of systematic approaches to dealing with complex projects and sudden crises. It’s all the more imperative that such approaches be developed and used by our current downsized public sector in our increasingly fragile world.
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