Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Enough of Amateur Critics


It's ludicrous that hundreds of pundits, thousands of politicians, and millions of citizens with little or no experience in the planning and direction of complex operations are judging the performance of various governments in the preparation for and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. All that these uninformed pundits, politicians, and citizens could know for a fact is that a major hurricane hit an area that hadn't been hit by a stronger hurricane in 36 years. They could also know that Louisiana has been struck by lesser hurricanes about once every three years. And, finally, they could know (if they had been paying close attention to federal, state, and local machinations over many decades) that New Orleans was nevertheless ill-prepared for a major hurricane for many reasons that long predate the ascension of the current federal, state, and city administrations. Knowing only those facts (if they indeed know them), these "experts" nevertheless leap to the conclusion that "someone" must be to blame for this, that, and the other aspect of the disaster in New Orleans because, well, "someone" must be to blame.

I daresay that I know a lot more than most of the armchair critics about the planning and direction of complex operations. I have been immersed, at various times, in the planning and construction of a house, the planning and construction of major renovations and additions to a house, and -- of most relevance -- the design of and negotiation of a lease for a 200,000 square-foot office building. The office building was not just a partitioned shell, but one designed to incorporate state-of-the art modular furniture (not in cubicles, but in private offices), a variety of computing and telecommunications facilities, many special security features, conference facilities, food-preparation areas, libraries, and on and on. But that's not all. At the company for which I planned the office building, I also had a broader portfolio of responsibilities, including the provision of physical and information security, financial and contractual management, the operation of central and distributed computing services, and the administration of personnel services in compliance with an array of federal, state, and local laws and regulations.

Now, one of the main lessons that I learned from my years of planning and directing complex operations is the following: Success has many parents; failures and setbacks have but one, the person on the spot. Yet, the person on the spot almost never starts with a clean slate or gets to run in a clear field. The person on the spot always operates within many constraints (e.g., budgets, traditions, and expectations). The person on the spot can never anticipate every contingency (especially the contingency that disrupts a plan). And, no matter the competence of the person on the spot, it takes time, effort, and (often) additional resources to regroup when a plan has been disrupted by reality.

There may be obvious instances of incompetent performance in the aftermath of Katrina; Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, and former FEMA director Mike Brown are obvious candidates for Bumbler of the Year. But the armchair critics on the sidelines are looking beyond the obvious bumblers and second-guessing the performance of various government entities from nothing more than pure, unadulterated ignorance: ignorance of the long and complex history of political and budgetary bargains that led to the state of New Orleans's defenses against Katrina; ignorance of the political and budgetary bargains that led to the state of readiness on the part of various responders; ignorance of the difficulty of developing complex plans for events that will never unfold according to plan; ignorance of the hard fact that no plan survives "first contact with the enemy" (Katrina, in this case); ignorance of the amount of time, effort, and resources it takes to recover from the kinds of setbacks that are inevitable in a complex and chaotic operation; and, finally, ignorance of what was possible in the first place, given all of the foregoing complexities. Just to say that the preparations for and response to Katrina were inadequate -- which is about all that most of the second-guessers really have to say -- is, in a word, inadequate.

Well, I've had more than enough of second-guessers in my career. I got the job done in spite of them, but I long ago grew sick and tired of listening to them. So, I'll not waste any more of my time reading what the second-guessers have to say about Katrina. And, as qualified as I might be to second-guess the second-guessers, there'll be no more second-guessing from me, on this subject.

P.S. But, Columbo-like, I must add something on my way out. You've probably noticed that most of the armchair critics are animated by Bush-hate. That's a fact which trumps their laughable "expertise," which is on a par with William Jennings Bryan's expertise in evolution.

As for Bush, he is now apologizing for failures on the part of the feds, which is fair enough to the extent that there were actual failures to do the right thing when confronted with actual events and armed with the proper tools with which to respond to those events. But what's really going on, in my view, is that Bush is throwing his critics a crumb. He has nothing to lose by doing so (the haters will still hate him), and much to gain from those in the middle who will credit him for "taking responsibility" -- whatever that Clintonesque term means when one cannot be fired, fined, or jailed for one's actions.

P.P.S. Let me make it perfectly clear that I am not apologizing for the Bush administration, or any other government entity. I'm just explaining how it is that few -- if any -- of those who are bashing government's response to Katrina have any basis for doing so, other than a desire to seem appropriately wise and/or indignant. Moreover, though it might be possible for government to have done better than it has done, it could not have done as well as private citizens and business owners, had they been allowed to keep their tax dollars and use them to prepare for and recover from Katrina. For more on that score, see these posts:

Katrina's Aftermath: Who's to Blame?
"The Private Sector Isn't Perfect" (09/02/05)
A Modest Proposal for Disaster Preparedness (09/07/05)
No Mention of Opportunity Costs (09/08/05)
Whose Incompetence Do You Trust? (09/10/05)
An Open Letter to Michael Moore (09/13/05)