Bureaucracies and crisis management

Brad DeLong–who is always funny when he gets mad–is probably on target when bashing Bush for FEMA’s mishandling of Katrina’s crisis…  On the other hand, maybe he expects too much from a bureucracy:
“(…) should we be surprised at this?  (…) Yes, we should be surprised. FEMA is a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is designed to keep functioning even when it is headed by a man who was suddenly told by his private-sector bosses to find a new job and whose only qualification is that he is the friend of a friend of the president. When faced with a situation, you pull out the plans and you follow the standard operating procedures. When hurricanes threaten the Gulf coast, you pre-position hospital and rescue ships offshore. You have a meeting beforehand and ask: “if this truly goes south – much worse than we are expecting – what things will we wish a month from now that we had done today?” In the case of New Orleans, you know that there will be floods so you prepare to drop support from the air.

But here the plans were not pulled out of the filing cabinets, the standard operating procedures were not followed, and the “what will we wish we had done?” meetings were apparently not held. In any other form of government besides that of the US – where the president has the formal legal powers of the 18th-century British monarch, and where each party’s presidential candidate emerges from an undignified struggle among party activists – Mr Bush would have been eased out by now. The barons of his party would have told him that he had to step aside.

It would be better for the country–and for the Republican party–if some way were found to ensure its future presidential candidates have some skill in public administration.

Tyler Cowen offers his insight, too:

Why don’t governments handle all crises well?  (…):

1. The event is often small-probability in nature.
2. The event has very negative consequences, and we don’t have optimal punishments for those who get it wrong.
3. Many crisis-related events and required decisions happen quickly in immediate sequence.  First, it is hard to get the decisions right, second it is even harder to look good, given some inevitable mistakes.
4. Media scrutiny is intense, and voters care about the issue.  This encourages ex post overreactions and overinvestments in symbolic fixes, especially when combined with #1.
5. A crisis is, by definition, large.  This puts federalism, whatever its other merits, at a disadvantage.  No one is sure who is responsible for what, or how a chain of command should operate.

All of these seem to have operated in New Orleans, plus they were combined with one of our worst-functioning local governments and an administration especially weak on the issue of accountability.  Roger Congleton has a paper on the public choice of crisis management.