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Doing A Good Job

September 3, 2009

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as he surveyed the devastation, President George W. Bush commended his FEMA chief.  His statement — “You’re doing a great job, Brownie” — surprised and alarmed most observers because it seemed so inconsistent with the state of affairs.  After all, the evidence of leadership failure streaming out of New Orleans was overwhelming.

Whether it is fair to lay these failures at the feet of former FEMA Administrator Michael D. Brown or President Bush remains an open question.  Whether the response was adequate is not.

When I was a firefighter and fire chief, the public often saw the biggest fires as our finest moments, when, in reality, they often provided the most tangible evidence we had failed to adequately perform our most fundamental functions: preventing fires, promoting building and fire code compliance, and preparing owners and occupants to respond effectively when fires occur.

This situation highlights a significant issue for public leaders.  Most of the time, the general public and media have little idea how well we are performing unless things go horribly wrong.  In other words, our failures are easier to detect than our successes.  Even then, our failures must often be profound, pernicious, or persistent before they fail to evade easy detection or escape intense scrutiny.  It’s worth reflecting on why this is so.

Four important issues affect public judgements about our performance: 1) the influence of tacit knowledge or expertise,  2) limited exposure to or interaction with our services, 3) relatively low expectations, and 4) innate cognitive biases.

Many of the tasks government performs involve significant compelxity.  As such, successful performance does not rely upon and cannot be reduced to simple and repeatable steps, the completion of which can be easily verified.

Even those services that do involve simple and straightforward processes produce essentially random and limited interactions with a relatively small fraction of the population.  Even when such services affect a wide cross-section of the citizenry, they often involve relatively little direct contact with individual or identifiable public servants.

When people do interact with public servants, they have come to expect very little or at least little positive.  That is not to say they find it acceptable or even tolerable, only that they do not find it surprising so much as frustrating.

Finally, those relatively rare occasions in which people get to see public servants performing in ways that exceed their expectations often involve significant personal risk of either a physical or political nature.  As such, they tend to assume altruistic motivations and consequently bestow heroic status upon those individuals involved.

The best public servants do, in fact, aspire to promote the public good.  This does not make them heroes, though, and neither explains nor excuses poor performance.

If we want to improve public performance, which is itself a public good, then we need to encourage a more practical view of public service.  We can start by assuming that the biggest problems facing most communities present leadership challenges that are primarily adaptive not technical in nature.

This perspective should not only encourage more direct engagement with the public to frame problems and consider prospective solutions, but in doing so it should also raise expectations among the public and public servants alike by involving both in decisions on any important question.  Although this will strengthen a shared sense of civic purpose, it will also, and perhaps more importantly, make solutions more accessible to those who have to live with the problems.

Each of these steps gives us the opportunity have our cake and eat it too: We can all be heroes by working together to make our communities better places to live.  Likewise, when we fall short, we will all know why and we’ll all share responsibility for making things better.

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