The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the problems with bureaucracy, particularly the lack of accountability that often accompanies bureaucratic organizations.
The modern understanding of a bureaucracy comes from the work of Max Weber, who described it as a paradigm of rationalization (Ritzer, 1993, p. 18). Specifically, Weber called bureaucracy “formal rationality” meaning that it is build around the concept that the process of finding the best means toward achieving a goal is accomplished within the parameters of rules and regulations and within the structured social environment of the bureaucracy (Ritzer, 1993, p. 19). Where bureaucracy is concerned, structure and procedure and adherence to them are paramount.
In the case of a political bureaucracy, the structure is able to respond to the responsibilities to which it is assigned as well as to the needs of the political forces necessary to its existence (Meier, p. 33) and, sometimes, the bureaucracy responds to the politicians that appoint the leaders of the bureaucracy to their positions.
For the purposes of this paper, I will concentrate on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), using its response to Hurricane Katrina as a means to show how bureaucracy , while intended as a means of improving efficiency, can function against this aim. Where Katrina is concerned, it would be possible to trace back failures, bureaucratic or otherwise, for many years. Levees were inadequately built, infrastructure and evacuation plans failed and there was a confusing array organizations involved in the preparation and the response, or lack thereof (109th Congress, 2005, p. 2).
Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 26, 2005 after having become a hurricane on August 25 and first making landfall in Florida. Which is to say, the event was not unexpected. FEMA had made preparations for landfall, and by August 26 had deployed more resources than it ever had in its history to deal with the impending disaster (109th Congress, 2005, p. 59). By the time preparations were in full swing, the operation would entail dozens of government bureaucracies, including FEMA, The Department of Defense, The National Guard, Louisiana Fish & Wildlife and more. When it was all said and done, the country would be left trying to find out who, exactly, was to be held responsible for the death and destruction wrought by Katrina.
Because of the nature of the bureaucracies involved, placing blame for what would become the full-scale destruction of a major city would prove difficult. The Levees in New Orleans were known for years to be inadequate to provide protection against the sort of flooding a hurricane such as Katrina brings with it.
Trying to find out why they were never repaired is illustrative of the problems in assessing accountability where bureaucracy is concerned. In the hyper-rational world of a bureaucracy, the responsibility for maintaining levees-with the exception of those on the Mississippi river—was spread out over several different organizations that failed to communicate effectively with each other, not to mention their failure to maintain the levees as they were charged (109th Congress, p. 91)
The different local organizations involved had the effect of diffusing responsibility and creating potential weaknesses. For example, levee breaches and distress were repeatedly noted at transition sections, where different organizations were responsible for different pieces and thus two different levee or wall systems joined together. (109th Congress, p. 92)
The levee example is both telling and tragically ironic. In the areas where two levees met, each maintained by a different government bureaucracy, were to be found the worst-case scenarios of disrepair. Apparently, where it was difficult to ascertain who was responsible for the adjoining sections, no one was held responsible. The effects of this lack of accountability, and inaction, need not be reiterated.
Yet, in the end, it would not be the leaders of the bureaucracies, nor the leaders of the government who would be held responsible. Despite hundreds of pages detailing the failure of government bureaucracies to react quickly to a rapidly changing situation, the Congressional investigation would place blame for many of their failures on a rather curious set of shoulders.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum told the Select Committee on October 27, “We focused assets and resources based on situational awareness provided to us by the media, frankly. And the media failed in their responsibility to get it right. …we sent forces and capabilities to places that didn’t need to go there in numbers that were far in excess of what was required, because they kept running the same B roll over and over….and the impression to us that were watching it was that the condition did not change. But the conditions were continually changing.” (109th Congress, 2005, p. 361)
The bureaucracy functions here to protect itself far better than it ever did to protect New Orleans. We see the media faulted for not providing accurate information to the government, even though it is clearly the government’s responsibility to coordinate and communicate disaster relief plans, not the media’s. The media may, indeed, have been predictably sensationalistic in its coverage but anyone with an elementary knowledge of how media works should have expected this, much less a man who holds a rank as impressive as Lt. General.
Remarkably, while it would be natural to expect that the bureaucracies would be expected to maintain the levees and, having failed miserably at that, would be expected to deal with the fallout in some planned, rational and structured manner, it seems that they were not only immune from being held accountable for their own failure, but are in a rather high-seated position which allows them to assign blame to other entities with no official power at all; at least they seem to think as much.
Where FEMA is concerned and, specifically, Michael Brown, who then headed the agency after being appointed by President Bush, the amount of blame-deflecting speech is truly staggering. “…I became tied to the news shows, going on the news shows early in the morning and late at night, and that was just a mistake. We should have been feeding that information to the press…in the manner and time that we wanted to, instead of letting the press drive us.” (109th Congress, 2005, p. 361)
No one takes blame. Taking blame, of course, is politically dangerous or is at least thought of as being so in the current ideological climate. But what is important is not who is “driving” the bureaucracy, nor from whom the bureaucracy is getting its information. What is imperative to understanding what transpires is understanding exactly whom is in control (Meier, 2006, p. 33)
Additionally, more resources than have ever been deployed may well have been deployed but what matters is whether or not those resources were distributed, which they were not. While New Orleans lay under sewage, seawater and destruction, the President uttered his famous—or , perhaps, infamous—line “Heck of a job, Brownie!” to the clearly incompetent head of FEMA, Michael Brown.
Some blame was laid at the feet of Brown and he was removed from his position, authority for the response being given over to Homeland Security, a bureaucracy the size and scope of which Kafka would be hard-pressed to have imagined. This removal, however, seemed more of a case of political expediency than it did of true accountability. If those accountable were truly held accountable, there would be much re-examination of procedure, preparation and the execution of plans and, hopefully, a realization that the ossified response typical of bureaucracy is, perhaps, not the most reliable means for dealing with a disaster such as Katrina.
Presently, New Orleans remains in ruins for the most part. Complaints about the state of FEMA provided trailers, price gouging by independent contractors and sweetheart deals where relief efforts are concerned have peppered the media since the disaster passed. No one, however, seems to have been held truly accountable. Such is the frustration when one deals with the bureaucracy. How does one assign responsibility when a bureaucracy is, by definition, an organizational structure that seems to discourage individual action of any kind? How does one find the true cause of catastrophic failure when the information at hand is either Byzantine bureaucrat-speak or deliberately altered to protect the interests of the bureaucracy and, hence, the State in general?
Weber may have provided useful insights into the workings of bureaucracies and other social philosophers may have regarded them as greater or lesser examples of helpful or hurtful rationalization but the problems that have characterized them since their appearance have remained. Where bureaucracies live, accountability, leadership, innovation and flexibility tend to die. Were it only those virtues that suffered their end during Katrina, perhaps there would be less pressing an issue with which to content. However, people died, largely due to the failures of the bureaucracies they are compelled to support , and that bears a more serious investigation that what has been offered as of yet.
109th Congress, S. S. (2005). A Failure of Initiative, Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate The Preparation for and Response to Hurricante Katrina. Washington D.C.: US Government Printing Office.
Meier, K. J. (2006). Bureaucracy In a Democratic State. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ritzer, G. (1993). The McDonalidization of Society. Newbury Park, California: Pine Forge Press.