Steve Haner and I have expressed the exact same three-phase reaction to state government missteps in the COVID-19 crisis. At first we gave the Governor slack because we knew he was unprepared and is supported by bureaucracies similarly unprepared for the new realities and that both needed time to adjust.
Then, when some of the Virginia bureaucracies important to this crisis showed inescapable evidence of a lack of nimbleness that rose to a level of incompetence, we called them out. Someone has to, or Governor, unschooled in the machinery of crisis response, will not get a sufficiently clear picture to seek alternative advice. Certainly, no one who works for him is likely to tell him.
That is the reason that I listed a “bill of particulars” the other day about major missteps in his April 1 press conference. He needs better advice. A follow-up article was about official malfeasance. He needs to fire the culprit.
Third, we recommended how the problems can be addressed. I recommended the Governor seek support from MITRE to bridge the unpreparedness of his government advisors. The advice was for now, not for the post-crisis review. We want and need him to succeed.
What happens to government bureaucracies in a crisis?
Government bureaucracies often succeed at their basic day-to-day missions, but in many cases it is best not to look closer if you don’t have strong stomach.
Bureaucracies with day-to-day operating responsibilities tend to be more useful in a crisis than purely administrative ones, because they have self-adjusted to the requirements of those missions and have a built-in feedback loop that imports necessary changes.
I worked for more than 50 years for or with the government at the federal and state levels. In the second Clinton-Gore administration, I worked under contract for Vice President Gore’s “reinventing government” initiative. It proved to me, if I ever doubted it, that bureaucracies are seldom if ever nimble and most often fiercely protective of the status quo in their work environment. They resist change, usually covertly but sometimes even overtly, even when change is directed from the top.
One very senior official in the Senior Executive Service told me to my face, “We’re not doing that,” meaning implement change at the Vice President’s direction. He was happy to participate in the studies of what changes might be required in his department, but pointed out that Clinton and Gore and his current boss would be gone before the recommendations of the study could be implemented.
Those same five decades also showed me that when events require nimble adaptation to new circumstances, administrative bureaucracies often stumble. Despite excellent paper planning and the availability of excellent federally funded full scale exercises in emergency response, senior leaders often don’t prepare in any rigorous way.
There was severe criticism during Katrina that FEMA “failed.” Those of us familiar with government, including Washington reporters, knew that FEMA was never tasked to do what it was “expected” to do. Before Katrina, FEMA was tasked to implement pre-existing support contracts and to directly fund state needs under the Stafford Act, not to marshal the full resources of the federal government and non-existent FEMA forces to march in and solve everything. Didn’t matter; that was the “expectation” of most people who before Katrina couldn’t spell FEMA. Like many today, those same people had no basic understanding of the Constitution and its separation of powers.
It should be but is not reasonable today to expect VDH to step up as an action agency in matters it doesn’t oversee daily, such as healthcare capacity, staffing, equipment and material and the distribution and re-distribution of same. The only way that expectation would be realistic were if VDH exercised a full-scale operational role regularly in exercises. It has not. Thus, VDH and the Governor have discovered together in real time that VDH does not have enough information or experience to provide the Governor the answers and advice he needs.
Must we judge government performance in a crisis during the crisis?
My rule: Never in the absence of strong evidence attribute to individual malfeasance what can be explained by bureaucratic self-defense mechanisms, sloth, awkwardness or incompetence. If you use that as an axiom, you will find exceptions, but seldom. The removal of the planning document from the state website was an exception.
Competent criticism often must come from outside government to alert leaders to incompetence and malfeasance.
My experience with government at federal and state levels is that, except in the command-and-control operational environments of the military, state police and a few others, “lessons learned” developed after a crisis are seldom learned and acted upon because inertia takes over again.
Real-time criticism, done with the goal of improving government performance rather than self satisfaction and aggrandizement, is patriotic and can be as it is meant to be, helpful. Changes must be made during a crisis to be of any use during or after it. 4There are currently no comments highlighted.