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.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Government organizational failure as standard operating procedure

Even before the pandemic response, the media reported on various federal government failures throughout the Trump Administration.  More recently in an article about the transition to the Biden Administration, was the mention that the key policy units supporting the Secretary of Treasury have had staff reductions in the range of 40%.

Obviously, the failure of the federal government's public health response ("How the CDC failed public health officials fighting the coronavirus," "The CDC chief lost his way during COVID-19. Now his agency is in the balance," USA Today) to the coronavirus is the ultimate example of this cross the board failure, although many state governments have been equally culpable ("Judge: South Dakota can’t use COVID-19 to delay trial," AP)--Florida and Taiwan have about the same population but Florida has over 23,000 deaths from covid, while Taiwan has 7.  

-- "US virus death toll hits 350,000; surge feared," AP, January 3rd, 2021

The coronavirus response alone ranks #1 in the Organizational Failure Hall of Fame.

AP photo

This is the logical result of 40+ years of the neoliberalism paradigm, which exalts the private sector at the expense of the public sector, not only denigrating government but defunding it, so that the criticism of public response as inadequate comes true because of the hollowing out of government staff and expertise.

But some recent reports bring this up the topic of organizational failure yet again.  It's so typical that it appears as if failure is the preferred outcome.

As I wrote in November, I don't like to bandy about the word "corruption" when it comes to government. Corruption has a specific meaning and the word is too often misused when people excoriate politics and politicians. 

But there is no question that putting "politics" over "governance" and quality outcomes has subverted and degraded what government does and can do, in ways that dis-serve the public.

Even if individual officials are not corrupt, we have created "corrupt systems" where dysfunction is the standard outcome.

-- Corrupt Cities: A Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention, World Bank
-- "DC ethics legislation misses the point: focus on what produces corruption as a regular outcome, not monitoring," blog entry, 2011
-- Spring 2015 issue of the alumni magazine of the International Anti-Corruption Academy

1.  Flint water crisis.  AP reports ("Michigan plans to charge ex-Gov. Snyder in Flint water probe") that the State of Michigan will be indicting previous government officials (Republicans, including former Governor Rick Snyder) over their creation of and failed response to the Flint Water Crisis.

All they needed to do was spend less than $100,000 to treat the water, once they changed from "Detroit water" to water from the Flint River.  But state officials inexplicably said that treating the water was unnecessary and this led to lead leeching into the water.  At the time, the city, bankrupt, was under the direct control of the state government.

Put that in perspective when reading about how a settlement of $641 million is being negotiated to settle various suits ("$600-million Flint water crisis settlement bills pass state House, move to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer," MLive/Flint Journal, "Critics say they are "gravely concerned" about proposed Flint water crisis settlement," Michigan Public Radio).  

$100,000 is 1/6410 of this cost alone.  The state government is providing $600 million towards the settlement, which is funded by a bond.  So with interest costs the cost to the state is likely to be more than $1 billion in total over time.

Outside of indictments, and it's hard to get criminal charges sustained for these kinds of organizational failures, how can accountability be imposed?

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. As Congress prepares to affirm President-elect Joe Biden's victory, thousands of people have gathered to show their support for President Donald Trump and his claims of election fraud.(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

2.  US Capitol Police fail to adequately respond to reports of likely attack on the Capitol.  Wow, just wow.  Talk about organizational failure ("With big budget but little accountability, long-troubled Capitol Police face questions after siege," Washington Post).  

Even though Trump has been amping up Republicans by falsely claiming the election was stolen, and with reports of the potential for violence ("FBI report warned of ‘war’ at Capitol, contradicting claims there was no indication of looming violence," Washington Post), the USCP treated the event as a "normal demonstration" and didn't increase staffing beyond a normal day, nor did they institute basic protocols to defend the Capitol in the face of the potential for violence.

3.  And yes, while the coronavirus is #1 in organizational failure, the federal government public health response continues to be inadequate, now with regard to rollout of vaccination ("Vaccines were a chance to redeem failures in the U.S. coronavirus response. What went wrong?," Washington Post).

Instead of coming up with a master plan, giving it to states, and then modifying it, the CDC asked each state to come up with its own plan.

This reminds me of when I was a commercial district revitalization manager in DC.  There were 11 Main Street programs.  They would ask us to each respond to some type of program, rather than providing a best practice template.  I thought this was a massive waste of resources and a failure to leverage potential network effects (benefits) from having multiple programs in one city.

This was the problem with Obamacare too.  They should have piloted it with a few states, with a master website instead of rolling it out at once, and with different websites for every state.  Then they should have upgraded everything based on one year's experience.  Did the 2.0 reboot.  Rolled it out to more states, tweaked it some more, and then with 3.0 rolled it out to the rest of the country.

The vaccination program probably doesn't need that many iterations.  But certainly it could be done a lot better.

Who knew there is a

-- World Immunization Week, held the last week of April, sponsored by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other organizations

Honorable mentions

Aerial photo of flooding in downtown Midland, Mich., Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (Photo: Kelly Jordan and Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press).

4.  I wrote about this in May, but Michigan is also notable for another federal-state failure, last year's failed dams on the Tittabawassee River, which flooded the City of Midland.  "Displacing a problem doesn't solve it: an example of how restrained regulation can cost millions of dollars | Flooding in Mid-Michigan from a dam break."

Instead of correcting the problem, when the dam owner failed to act, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission took away its hydroelectricity generation permits, and kicked the oversight responsibility to the state.  What they should have done is appointed a receiver and fixed the dams.

5.  The failure to adequately regulate Washington Gas and requirements to replace regulator valves prone to failure, which contributed to the explosion of a furnace room in a suburban Maryland apartment complex, killing 7 and injuring scores more ("Faulty vent and regulator caused deadly Silver Spring explosion, federal investigators say," Washington Post), "Washington Gas Light fined over program linked to 2016 Md. apartment blast," Standard & Poor's Global).

6.  WMATA operations and management ("Metro Safety Commission Finds ‘Distractions, Fear, Threats and Conflicting Instructions’ in Control Center," Loudoun Now).


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