schussman.com logo

A failure to bureaucratize sufficiently

I have been … what? intrigued? dismayed? ... in the past few days to hear the blame for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina placed on “bureaucracy.” In an interview today, the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore tried to split blame between general bureaucracy at the federal level and very specific bureaucracy at the local level1. Much more prominently, the President today announced more relief funds and admonished bureaucracy for getting in the way of people who need help. It seems that everywhere I look the failures of planning and acting are being designated as failures fundamental to bureaucracy.

But the one just doesn’t imply the other. Duties in functioning bureaucracies are assigned according to ability in a process intended explicitly to depart from charismatic management. Further, effectively managed and executed bureaucracies may not be nimble, but in their lack of flexibility is a stability meant to employ specialized skills in an orderly way, in order to accomplish well-defined sets of tasks. All week I have been thinking of Charles Perrow’s Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay, in which Perrow sharply criticizes uninformed attacks on bureaucracy by arguing that “the sins generally attributed to bureaucracy are either not sins at all or are consequences of the failure to bureaucratize sufficiently.”

The key here, as Weber laid it out way back in the day(some observations on Weber via Nathan Newman, via Making Light), is that bureaucracies are only as good as the separation of the politics from the practice, the charisma from the capacity. When we allow the very term “bureaucracy” to become a diry word we don’t move any closer to doing a better job next time.


1 Which I think is sneaky: He suggests that locals failed in very particular and identifiable ways, while the feds failed because, hey, government is big and makes mistakes.

Coming up short

Via Mark Kleiman:

According to Smith, the heaviest physical damage to the property was caused by significant water and debris being blown into hotel guest rooms and atrium lobby after windows were shattered by severe winds.

A convoy of food and supplies provided by Hyatt hotels in Atlanta and Houston arrived at Hyatt Regency New Orleans on Wednesday of this week.

What? According to google’s directions, it’s about two-tenths of a mile, in a straight line, from the Hyatt Regency to the Superdome. And according to the Hyatt:

Among hotels in New Orleans, we’re your gateway to enjoy everything New Orleans has to offer, whether you’re visiting our city for business or for pleasure. Just a few minutes from the New Orleans Convention Center, our downtown hotel is perfect for New Orleans conventions and events. Among hotels in New Orleans with an ideal location, you can’t beat the Hyatt Regency New Orleans as we’re adjacent to the Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans Arena and New Orleans Centre shopping mall.

They even have a map.

The guys from the Hyatt just, what, drove right to the lobby door?

Update: Some discussion of this over at Crooked Timber, where Kieran threw Bainbridge for a loop.

Katrina by the numbers

A few numbers, anyway, generated by looking at this photo over at Washington Monthly, and roughly tracing the flooded area of New Orleans onto a map at Social Explorer. The latter site is a neat way to explore census data: Outline or mark areas and then generate a report. From the (popup jpg; rough flood area is crosshatched) came a load of data. The flood area has a population of about 380,000. Here’s how it compares to national numbers:1

  median HH income % black % poverty % owns home % private trans. % public trans.
US $ 41,994 12.1 12.3 66.2 87.9 4.7
Flood area $ 29,854 66.8 26.9 50.6 79.0 13.0

These real numbers should be part of the discussion of why so many people didn’t get out of town. Jack Shafer gives it some thought, but it’s also informative to compare these numbers with national rates: In the flooded area of the city, poverty is more than twice as high as the national rate; median income is twelve thousand dollars lower; reliance on public transportation is nearly three times as high. Lower rates of owner-occupation mean a greater lack of insurance coverage, as Shafer also observes:

But I don’t recall any reporter exploring the class issue directly by getting a paycheck-to-paycheck victim to explain that he couldn’t risk leaving because if he lost his furniture and appliances, his pots and pans, his bedding and clothes, to Katrina or looters, he’d have no way to replace them. No insurance, no stable, large extended family that could lend him cash to get back on his feet, no middle-class job to return to after the storm.

For the prospect of those very poor residents of New Orleans, evacuation was a lose-lose situation, one that threatened ruin either way. And now it seems that for everyone still there—and many who have made their way out of the city, as well—the hapless, disorganized response to not unimaginable conditions just seals the deal.

Friday morning update: Both Kevin Drum and Fred Clark excerpt some sharp commentary on the ties between poverty and evacuation.

1 2000 Census.


About, the short version

I’m a sociologist-errant. This site is powered by Textpattern, Pair Networks and the sociological imagination. For more about me and this site, see the long version.

RSS feed