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Tags: Coronavirus | coronavirus | bureaucracies

Coronavirus Demonstrates Bureaucracy's Strengths and Weaknesses

illustration of a person holding a large stack of papers
(Nadezhda Buravleva/Dreamstime)

By Wednesday, 18 March 2020 12:07 PM Current | Bio | Archive

It is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the bureaucracies through which governments must act in struggling with the coronavirus. 

When President Trump declared a national emergency, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading federal epidemics expert, noted that federal agencies were well prepared to deal with normal epidemics. But, he added, they hadn't established procedures for coping with the novelty and scale presented by coronavirus.

As I pointed out in my 1981 college textbook, despite widespread notions that bureaucrats are incompetent paper-shufflers, bureaucratic organizations are extremely efficient. Their sluggishness in nontypical cases is a side effect of the rules enabling them to deal efficiently with routine problems. And one person's "red tape" is another person's protection from arbitrary treatment by government officials.

But as Harvard political scientist Graham Allison has noted, "organizations are blunt instruments."

Like  computers, large organizations can do only those things they are organized or programmed to do.  Old organizations can be taught new tricks, but this takes time. Organizations told to do something they aren't prepared for will react with great confusion. Responsibilities haven't been allocated, procedures haven't been established, the organizational rules and roles aren't pertinent, and necessary expertise may be unavailable in current personnel.

The immense inertia of organizations presents few problems when they need to make large numbers of similar decisions. Processing millions of Social Security payments each month or forecasting weather for the next 24 hours can easily routinized.

On the other hand, when something comes up for which standard operating procedures are inadequate, great problems result. This is precisely the problem with recent government efforts to fight the coronavirus. 

The problem has been compounded by Donald Trump's lack of previous experience running large organizations. His personal business required him to interact with only a few people, often family members. In this context, his tendency to make snap decisions based on gut instincts and without broad consultation did not create serious problems. It even may have been an advantage.

Trump's frequent inability to get the federal bureaucracies to do what he wants has led him to imagine the existence of a "deep state" of  bureaucrats out to get him. His appointment of key advisers who themselves often lacked relevant government experience has also not helped him deal with the current emergency. 

But the fundamental problem, as Dr. Fauci stated, is that the government wasn't  organized to deal with huge medical emergencies like the coronavirus. For a few years, offices in the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Council were responsible for coordinating government response to future pandemics. But these offices, set up under President Obama, were  eliminated in 2018 by the Trump administration. 

Was this done because Trump hates everything done by Mr. Obama, or was it just an effort to save money and make government more efficient? At his recent press conference Trump denied any involvement in dissolving the offices. But whether we believe this or not,  it happened during his watch. 

In an outstanding recent columnWilliam A. Galston noted that "Efficiency isn't the only economic virtue." Resilience, he noted, is also very important. Galston points out that "efficiency comes through optimal adaptation to an existing environment, while resilience requires the capacity to adapt to disruptive changes in the environment." 

Coronavirus is certainly a disruptive change, and Galston thinks that wiping out these offices was a terrible idea, because "inventing new command-and-control systems amid a burgeoning crisis isn't easy." 

This whole situation  reminds us how government employees,  often unfairly denounced as "incompetent bureaucrats," are critically important to our well-being in good times and in bad. 

Public servants are seriously underappreciated. We should all hug a bureaucrat ... but maybe not before we get a handle on the new virus!

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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PaulFdeLespinasse
Like computers, large organizations can do only those things they are organized or programmed to do.
coronavirus, bureaucracies
730
2020-07-18
Wednesday, 18 March 2020 12:07 PM
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