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Monday, July 24, 2006

Preparing for the last disaster...

It is now widely accepted among observers of organizations that the very process of organizing for the future is greatly influenced -- if not fully determined -- by perceptions of the past (see, for example, the ideas of Karl Weick). Thus it comes as no surprise to read this morning's New York Times piece by Eric Lipton that FEMA is "overhauling" its approach to disaster relief. Translated: they are preparing for the last disaster.

The "problems" with this approach are twofold:

First, it too often relies on perceptions of past difficulties, and these perceptions are all too often shaped by the hype of media coverage rather than careful analysis about what caused the disaster. There are, of course, limits to our human capacity to either uncover the "true cause" of a tragedy like Katrina or to predict the nature and for of the next disaster -- but we can (and should) certainly invest in efforts to conduct those efforts with as much precision and integrity as we can muster. But operating under the pressure of media hype in which reporters pursue and/or highlight their own sense of what is credible (or what makes sense to them), it is little wonder that agencies like FEMA make the quick fix that satisfies the impatient (if imaginary) mob.

Second, relying on the popular quick fix, there is the danger of promoting "thoughtless" actions in which the appropriateness, costs, consequences and potential drawbacks of the prescribed changes are rarely considered. For example, it is easy to ask why FEMA did not attempt to verify the eligibility and credibility of all claimants for immediate disaster relief, but it is quite another to ignore the what a solution would entail in terms of creating and maintaining an intrusive data base that is going to have to be developed in response. FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security will no doubt work to develop such a data base, but in the process they will be subject to criticisms for both the costliness and bureaucratization that will accompany such a project -- not to mention the media "bashing" that will naturally follow. When all that happens, it will do no good for FEMA and DHS to remind folks that they are merely doing what was demanded of them. It is all so predictable....

The old mantra applies: damned if you do, damned if you don't....

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