Monday, April 6, 2020

Why Governments Fail in Crisis Situations

This may be long. But, it's important to begin thinking about the Big Picture, rather than fumbling around for blame.

Every time there is a crisis, there is blame for it.

  • "Hoovervilles"
  • "The Cuban Missile Crisis (and the Mistakes JFK Had Made With the Russians"
  • "Reagan's Refusal to Deal With AIDS Made People Die"
  • "Bush Lied, People Died"
  • "The Wall Street Meltdown of 2008 Was the GOP's Fault"
  • "Obamacare Was a Disaster, and the GOP is to Blame"
  • "Trump's Failures Responsible for COVID-19 Deaths"
Unlike all the things listed above, reality is more complex. Both failure and success have many facets, and, seldom can the outcome be attributed to a single factor.

For those reading this who haven't experience with programming languages, that's like having your legal code written in Latin. In fact, there are probably more lawyers in the USA that can read Latin, than there are non-senile COBOL programmers who are still working.

(That MAY be a bit of an exaggeration - but not by much).

Why is NJ in this crisis?

Years ago, I was introduced to the Franklin Planning System. Still use it. The core part of it is recognizing that all of those things nagging at you to get done are not the same. Covey may or may not have invented the system, but he certainly was its greatest popularizer.

Both top quadrants are Important. The bottom ones are not Important. So, you might think to spend more time on the top quadrants, wouldn't you?

But, in the real world, we are most often driven by Urgent activities - those things that keep reminding us that they have to be dealt with - NOW!

If you do focus on the Left column, you are working in Urgent territory. But, half of those tasks (or more) are, by the terms of the divisions, not Important. So a good part of your time is being wasted on un-Important tasks.

You would think that's the Big Problem, wouldn't you? Just cut out those unnecessary tasks, and you'll become wildly productive.


Oh, you'll get more Urgent, Important tasks completed. But, you will have neglected the Important tasks in the upper-right quadrant - Quadrant II - Not Urgent, but Important.

A lot of those tasks are preventive care - getting your oil changed (failure to do so once wrecked a car I was driving), getting your flu shots and immunizations, taking time to exercise and prepare healthy meals ahead of time, scheduling your household maintenance before it's needed. All of those boring tasks (well, they are!) that keep systems, like your life and home, running smoothly.

As well as systems like government. And, that's where the problems come in.

Modern government is run by the crisis model. A substantial part of government is set up to deal with problems that arise, but have not been anticipated.

And, why have they NOT been anticipated?

Because government spends almost no time in Quadrant II - the Non-Urgent, but Important things.

This is the Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease method of prioritizing. The loudest noise is noticed. Even though it's pretty clear that the entire system needs an overhaul, only two quadrants get a response - Quadrant I, which are both Urgent AND Important, but, also, Quadrant III - Urgent, but Trivial.

So, about 1/2 of the time, those activities that are put to the top of the list are, by definition, not important. That skewed prioritization leaves the Important, but Not Urgent, tasks undone.

Which brings us to today.

You can't just blame the office-holders who stand for election - although that's the people who usually take the heat. Cuomo is merely a symptom of the problem - someone who focused on Urgent needs, but missed some of the Important ones in the process.

Obama was so focused on demonstrating that he was doing everything right, and his opposition were villains, that he preferred a glossy "we're got this" projection, rather than deal with actual crises. Like failing to re-vamp our financial systems, get rid of debt (too boring!), and re-build the Strategic Reserve.

Some Non-Urgent, but Important Activities:
  • Replenishing the Emergency Stockpiles of Equipment and Materials (and regularly testing and maintaining those that were stored - many of the ventilators were in poor condition, many of the masks and other supplies were out of date).
  • Streamlining the work of vital agencies such as the CDC. They strayed from their core mission - to be the first line of defense in case of sudden health crisis - to play around with Non-Urgent ideas like obesity reduction. NOT their mission. Cut that crap out! While we're at it, reduce the size of the agency - too many people leads to frivolous make-work activities.
  • Encouraging regional cooperation among the states (and directing some of that wasted CDC money to them). Let them handle inventory, maintenance, and other resource management issues. Have the regional authority report yearly on the performance of their collection of states, and set goals for improving the state of readiness for disasters - health, weather, water, etc. Some of the states already do work on this model - the Great Lakes Water Compact, for example.
  • Education of the public. It's not enough to do a great job - you have to explain HOW and WHY it's the best use of your time. The speeches at the convention this year, and during the rest of the campaign, need to put the attention on how appropriate planning and execution will change the direction of the next crisis. And, that, yes, there will always be crises.
If the GOP got on board with the idea of long-range planning, and educating the public about why it's important, they could take this election - and many more thereafter. AND, shift the focus of elections to asking the electorate - what is really important?

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