Chain of Command
problems as in Katrina and other places

are several problems that are systemic to all chains of command. Some came to the fore in the Katrina-FEMA debacle. However, as I see it now, the Katrina mess was chiefly of political origin rather than theoretical-systemic problems as I wish to describe herein.

Briefly, the FEMA trouble began when political appointments were made instead of merit appointments. So, the people in charge had little experience in that which they were hired to do. Also, they displaced others who knew those jobs ... and ... as is always the case with such appointments ... they actively interfered with the workers who did know their jobs. What typically happens is that those in command in a situation that they are unfamiliar with ... shift the problem over from one of the situation itself (here, the hurricane emergency) to one of authority, i.e. who is in charge ... and ... buck passing ... in order to "cover one's ass". Where these people should have been organizing, they were looking for whom to blame. This type of behavior ties the hands of able people behind their backs so to speak ... reducing the entire operation to impotence.

The president has decided to "accept responsibility" which means absolutely nothing. Is he going to cut off his foot for public mortification? Hell no ... he will do nothing at all ... of course. Accepting responsibility simply serves the purpose of shutting down much of the criticism.

But enough of this political garbage ... I have bigger fish to fry.

Systemic Problems

These are of two types:

  • Asymmetry between Up and Down in the hierarchy
  • General message Repetition
In the first, the boss is listened to by his lieutenants more so than a lieutenant listens to his subordinates. The degree of influence is asymmetric. Anyone in the middle of the chain of command tends to place more weight on a message coming from the top than from the bottom. This is natural and systemic to any chain of command because the man at the top has power over the intermediaries in the command chain. The lieutenant does not wish to tell the general that things are going badly. Rather, he wishes to tell him that things are going "swimmingly" so that he looks good (by making the general look good). There is a tendency to pass good news up the chain of command while suppressing bad news. And this can be honestly done simply by requiring that bad news be "double checked" first thus slowing things down.

The result is that those at the top tend to get bad information ... if ... that information goes through a chain of command because those at the bottom of the chain have access to all the first hand information ... they are the ones in the thick of it.

The second problem is that when a piece of information is handed from one link in the chain to the next, it tends to be distorted at each passing so that at the end ... it no longer resembles the information that was originally given. A report that the factory of Mars Candy had burned might end up as "Martians destroyed a factory with a laser cannon" or some such nonsense. I recall seeing this phenomenon of TV years ago. A joke was told to one person who translated it into another language and told it to the next person who told it to the next person in yet another language and so on till at length the last person was to re-tell the joke in English. It was completely unintelligible. So, the more links in the chain ... the greater is the chance of severe information distortion.

The Antidote

There is a simple antidote to systemic chain of command problems. It is that the head of the chain must have several personal observers on the scene to give him first hand information. For instance, the head of FEMA should have been in direct communication with people in the Superdome (not people flying overhead in a helicopter). If the director had just 100 widely spaced people on the ground in direct communication with him ... no fiasco would have occurred ex post facto (though the lack of preparation would have eventually made itself evident). I mean here they wouldn't have screwed up what little they had going for them just after the end of the hurricane itself.

The same fiasco happened with the Challenger explosion. Scientists were all but screaming for the launch to be stopped because of the O-rings ... but they couldn't stop it. The head of NASA had no direct contact with the people "in the know". Or, he knew but placed little credence on it because it was from "below". And, Reagan wasn't called by them either for certainly, they couldn't have possibly have gotten through the secretarial-security barricades.

But the buck should stop at the president's desk. If I were president, I would make it a point to give a special telephone number to about a thousand individuals at the lower levels of just about everything so that they could call me direct when something was seriously amiss and was going to result in a disaster. Of course, I'd expect them to call ONLY when the "little voice" inside told them, "You absolutely MUST call now!" ... thereby saving me too many calls to act on.

If presidents routinely did this ... and ... kept those people unknown to their own bosses to avoid harassment and burying them in jobs away from the action ... lots of things either would not have happened at all ... or ... would have been largely mitigated through timely and appropriate action based on accurate and timely information.

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