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Unintended consequences

I end up writing most of our blog entries. It's just the way things work. But Federal Computer Week editor in chief John S. Monroe filed this:

Writing an editorial is a bit like composing haiku: It often must convey complex and provocative ideas in a very small space. In the best case scenario, the limitations of the form (in the case of an editorial, 350 words or so, with a label and headline) force writers to be more concise than they would in normal discourse. They must distill their ideas in such a way that the final product seems complete even when it leaves a lot of information and thought processes unsaid.

Which brings me to the editorial in this week's issue of Federal Computer Week. This little diatribe (subtly entitled "Procedures be damned") focused on a comment on National Public Radio by a FEMA official about the importance of government procedures. The thesis of this editorial is simple: In a crisis, common sense should trump standard procedures. That seemed like a good starting point for an editorial, and indeed, it proved fairly easy to write.

But looking back on it now, I realized the editorial raised serious questions I could not answer in the small space allotted.

Many people would agree it was absurd for FEMA to require physicians working in storm shelters to fax in requests for medicine -- especially when those shelters did not have faxes nor electricity. But to what extent should government officials throw out their procedures? FEMA, for example, is already catching heat for awarding a slew of sole-source contracts. That wasn't necessarily what I had in mind when writing the editorial, but my thesis, taken to its logical conclusion, would seem to endorse it.

I am certain other cases of mismanagement and fraud will come to light in the months ahead, all of which will make me squirm -- or at least explain my position better. In truth, I do believe that in a crisis agencies must risk -- must be allowed to risk -- waste and fraud in the interest of saving lives. But I only wish I could have given my argument more nuances than the editorial page allowed.

Perhaps I should have tried haiku instead:

Don't let a man drown
While you crosscheck the invoice
Of a life jacket.

-- John Monroe

Posted by Christopher Dorobek on Sep 28, 2005 at 12:15 PM


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