Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

The routine discarding of expertise in policymaking

So I was reading a review of a book on General Westmoreland, one of the generals in charge of the Vietnam War, in the New York Review of Books, and there was an extended quoting of material by one James C. Thomson, a now deceased State Department staffer, about why knowledge experts on Vietnam-Asia weren't involved very much in policymaking as it related to the conduct of the War/presence of the US in Southeast Asia.

It turns out the quotes are from an Atlantic Magazine article by Mr. Thomson, from April 1968 (it's pretty amazing that the Atlantic Magazine has put most of its archives online), "How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy." 

And the article is quite insightful, ironically I came across it just after I had just written a lamentory email on a schools listserv about how knowledge about organizations and systems and subject specific expertise for the most part doesn't seem to be too important to elected officials at the Council-Mayoral-School Board level in many jurisdictions.

From the article:

Any new Administration inherits both complicated problems and simplistic views of the world. But surely among the policy-makers of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations there were men who would warn of the dangers of an open-ended commitment to the Vietnam quagmire?

This raises a central question, at the heart of the policy process: Where were the experts, the doubters, and the dissenters? Were they there at all, and if so, what happened to them?

The answer is complex but instructive. 

In the first place, the American government was sorely lacking in real Vietnam or Indochina expertise. ...

In addition, the shadow of the "loss of China" distorted Vietnam reporting. Career officers in the Department, and especially those in the field, had not forgotten the fate of their World War II colleagues who wrote in frankness from China and were later pilloried by Senate committees for critical comments on the Chinese Nationalists. Candid reporting on the strengths of the Viet Cong and the weaknesses of the Diem government was inhibited by the memory. ...

But a recurrent and increasingly important factor in the decisionmaking process was the banishment of real expertise. Here the underlying cause was the "closed politics" of policy-making as issues become hot: the more sensitive the issue, and the higher it rises in the bureaucracy, the more completely the experts are excluded while the harassed senior generalists take over (that is, the Secretaries, Undersecretaries, and Presidential Assistants). The frantic skimming of briefing papers in the back seats of limousines is no substitute for the presence of specialists; furthermore, in times of crisis such papers are deemed "too sensitive" even for review by the specialists. Another underlying cause of this banishment, as Vietnam became more critical, was the replacement of the experts, who were generally and increasingly pessimistic, by men described as "can-do guys," loyal and energetic fixers unsoured by expertise. In early 1965, when I confided my growing policy doubts to an older colleague on the NSC staff, he assured me that the smartest thing both of us could do was to "steer clear of the whole Vietnam mess"; the gentleman in question had the misfortune to be a "can-do guy," however, and is now highly placed in Vietnam, under orders to solve the mess.

Despite the banishment of the experts, internal doubters and dissenters did indeed appear and persist. Yet as I watched the process, such men were effectively neutralized by a subtle dynamic: the domestication of dissenters....

A related point—and crucial, I suppose, to government at all times—was the "effectiveness" trap, the trap that keeps men from speaking out, as clearly or often as they might, within the government. And it is the trap that keeps men from resigning in protest and airing their dissent outside the government.  
Read the full article.  It's very good.  Completely relevant to all levels of government.

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