Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Blame Game

There is a lot to be said for fixing the problem rather than fixing the blame. However, we cannot ignore the fact that sometimes a person is the problem.

I want to say at the start that this blog is different from my other writings. There, I write about general moral principles. I analyze what they are and how we can know about them.

Here, I want to show what comes up when when I apply those principles to real-world events.

For example, many people are protesting that this is not the right time to be participating in any sort of "blame game". There are people who need help. Our obligations to help these people means that it is wrong to divert resources away from that activity into a game of blame and counter-blame.

They are wrong.

Helping people means getting the resources they need to them as quickly and efficiently as possible. It means constantly looking at how those resources are being managed, identifying problems, and taking care of them quickly so that people who need those resources can get them.

A good leader does not wait until the crisis is over to ask, "How can we do this better?" He is asking himself that question every waking moment of every day. He is constantly on the watch for problems that are preventing him from getting the best possible results, analyzing those problems, and eliminating them as quickly as possible.

If he finds that a problem exists because the person handling a set of resources are not handling them well, he replaces that person immediately with somebody who will do the job well.

He does not wait to assign responsibility. He solves the problem.

The person who says, "Let's not play the blame game" is effectively saying, "Let's not try to identify and fix the problems that may be keeping us from doing a good job." The person who says "Let's not play the bmake game" is more interested in protecting political allies then in finding problems that prevent resources from getting to those who need them.

Finger Pointing

There is a different aspect of the "blame game" that is not so defensible - that is not defensible at all. This is a childish game where everybody who had their hands in a particular pie look for somebody else to blame when things go wrong.

What these people should be doing was fix the problem.

This is where leadership plays a role. The leader tells his subordinates not to play the blame game and fix the problem. Yet, at the same time, a true leader is looking over their shoulders with an eye to finding out who does their job well, and who does their job poorly. One type of employee who is doing his job poorly is the person who is looking for somebody else to blame rather than doing his own job to the best of his ability.

Ultimately, the rule that I use when I am running a project is that I am the one to blame if anything goes wrong. If somebody who reports to me makes a costly mistake, I was the one who put that person in that position. Therefore, ultimately, it is my costly mistake. As the leader, it is my job to make sure that I assign responsibilities to those who can handle them.

The type of employees that I would like to see in any position are those, when a crisis forms, are too busy trying to solve the problem to concern themselves with blame - except insofar as those employess need to assess the competence of people who report to them.


After the attacks on 9/11, the federal government should have immediately started looking at the most damaging attacks that terrorists could launch against the United States. A possible terrorist attack on the levees at New Orleans should have been high on that list. With enough high explosives, terrorists could blow open the levees and destroy a whole city.

In accordance with the government's duty to protect the people, it should have had a plan for dealing with such an attack. This attack, unlike a hurricane, would probably not come with any advanced warning. There would be no opportunity to get 80% of the people out of town before the flooding started.

A plan to deal with a terrorist attack on the New Orleans levees could have easily handled a hurricane that gave four days' warning and that could be tracked on a map.

None of this seems to have been done.

It is a lot easier to act in the face of a crisis than to react. Cruise ships start off each cruise with a lifeboat drill. Airplanes give the same instructions for what to do in case of an emergency at the start of every flight. Cruise ships have lifeboats and airplanes have emergency exits that, hopefully, are never used.

Buildings have sprinkler systems, and IT departments for any sizable business has backups that they hope will never be used.

The odds of a levy breech, particularly after 9/11, were far greater than the odds of any given cruise ship sinking. Yet, nobody seemed to have thought to install any emergency exits. Nobody seems to have run any lifeboat drills, or even similated a lifeboat drill, for a city that never more than a few decades away from facing a terrorist attack or Category 4 hurricane.


Now that the crisis has hit, there are calls for an investigation.

An investigation is needed.

Republican congressmen want a Republican-controlled joint House-Senate committee to run the investigation.

Democrats are resisting this plan.

The Republicans should not even be suggesting it. This has conflict of interest all over it. The problem with "conflict of interest" is that it sacrifices the interests of those who are not participating in the hearing to those who run it. In this case, the conflict of interest in such a hearing risks sacrificing the American people to the political interests of the Republican party.

A Democratic hearing would suffer the same problem.

This issue needs an independent commission whose members of members who are respected for their ability to put the interests of the people above those for any political party. The American people need to have the case heard by people who can look at the issues objectively and state, "In the future, things will work much more smoothly if we institute the following changes."

Ultimate Concern

Hurricane Katrina has exposed one very disturbing fact.

Four years after 9/11, the Federal Government does not have the ability to respond appropriately to a city in crisis. We have lived for four years under a government that has been telling us that we can relax and go about our business, we have found out that we cannot relax and go about our business.

To anybody who has thought that the government has a plan for dealing with the next city-wide crisis, I suggest that you make your own plans. Empirical evidence now suggests that you may need to live on your won for at least 7 days before the government shows up to offer assistance.

It may be useful to have a plan ready. Don't forget to try to think of the multitude of ways in which that plan could go wrong.

When the crisis hits, there will be a lot of people standing around ready to play another round of the blame game. The game does not do those who suffered in the catastrophe any good; it's already too late for that. The responsible person does what he can to prevent being one of those victims.

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