Kelman: The ‘blame game’ and learning moments

It was fascinating to hear President Bush warn us against playing the “blame game” with regard to disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I had considerable sympathy for his reaction.

When all the dust has cleared, my guess is that the emergency response failures will not be attributed to nonchalance or incompetence. Instead, they were likely caused by people misinterpreting unclear information as the crisis unfolded, combined with coordination problems that are difficult to avoid in disaster situations. There will probably be some exceptions, such as the failure to stockpile provisions in the Superdome even though using it as a refuge was part of New Orleans’ preparedness plan.

Unfortunately, the president’s reaction was out of character. This administration’s thinking about the management of public programs has been filled with the rhetoric of blame and punishment. When talking about punishing schools that have bad test results, cutting programs that fail to pass an Office of Management and Budget Program Assessment Rating Tool review and even in some discussions of pay for performance for employees, the language has typically been about the need to hold people to account –- a fancy way of saying "blame and punish."

The president’s sudden warning about the dangers of the blame game thus gives one the feeling that he can dish it out but he can't take it.

One of the toughest challenges leaders face is balancing what British public managers call “challenge and support.” On the one hand, managers and leaders must set high performance standards and expectations, and sometimes there will be a need for punishment. But the fear and resentment the prospect of punishment creates have costs as well. They demotivate people from trying to do a good job for its own sake, creating a vicious spiral with people only behaving well as long as punishments are ruthlessly maintained or even ratcheted up.

That approach can lead to a paralyzing risk aversion, a fear of trying new ways of doing business and taking refuge behind bureaucratic rules. Punishment often comes when people do something wrong rather than when they simply fail to do something right, and when something does go wrong, many fall back on the excuse that they were following the rules.

Organizations do, of course, need to learn from their mistakes and compare examples of successful performance with poorer performance. That approach lets them learn what works and what doesn’t.

However, learning occurs best in a less punitive environment. The Army understands that when it conducts its after-action reviews that seek lessons learned under no-blame rules. The British understand that when they are careful to mix support with challenge.

The public demand for accountability when things go badly reflects understandable anger over the suffering that events such as the 2001 terrorist attacks or Hurricane Katrina cause. But perhaps now that the shoe is on the other foot, the Bush administration will take this as a learning moment and see that the blame game is often not the most effective way to produce organizational improvement.

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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