Killer Bureaucracies

“The White House defended the sprawling U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak on Thursday amid complaints that it’s not clear who’s in charge of the effort.” — CNN, Oct. 2

Ebola, the Secret Service, Veterans Affairs, ObamaCare’s rollout, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Behind all these names are federal bureaucracies that are supposed to protect people or help them. Instead they have been putting individuals at risk, or worse.

Ebola’s spread in West Africa was predicted. Government agencies responded late. Now it’s here. The Secret Service is so disorganized it can’t protect, of all things, the White House. Veterans died waiting for admission to VA hospitals. The CDC lost track of anthrax, smallpox and H5N1 bird-flu samples. At the State Department, no one seems to quite know why a U.S. ambassador died in Benghazi. The 9/11 Commission explained in detail how the attackers evaded the bureaucracies. Add to this list the Internal Revenue Service, an agency of extraordinary power that has forfeited the public’s trust.

It is past time to start thinking about how much could be going wrong at so many federal agencies. Watchful waiting isn’t the cure for the next bureaucratic meltdown.

The theoretical defense of bureaucracies is that they perform large, needed tasks in a predictable way. For decades, left and right have argued over the bureaucracies’ accountability, regulatory capture, adverse incentives and the like. Along the way, all this largely got internalized as background noise, the annoying price of a complex society.

Suddenly, the federal bureaucracies look like a clear and present danger to the American people. Even progressive defenders of the administrative state must be getting nervous at the disarray in the response to Ebola.

Liberalism’s traditional answer to such failure is that underfunding raises the risk of bad outcomes. The Secret Service is failing because its budget was cut. Similarly, otherwise smart analysis of the reasons for the Ebola virus’s spread invariably ends by saying the World Health Organization, a huge U.N. agency, is underfunded. Arkansas’s incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor has run a campaign ad attacking his GOP opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, “who cut billions from our nation’s medical disaster and emergency programs.”

But what if this argument is not only wrong but is now dangerous? What if we have reached a point past which using money to make already large bureaucracies bigger makes the likelihood of catastrophic events worse?

Forget FDR and the glory days of the 1930s. Federal bureaucracies in the 21st century are breaking apart amid a perfect storm of size, complexity and technology. The debris is endangering all of us.

It is no revelation that contemporary society has become exceedingly complex, mainly because microchip-based technology has enabled complexity and speed to run side by side. Too bad the humans can’t keep up.

Studies done for the software industry conclude repeatedly that its most intractable problem is not engineering failure but human error. A 2012 study for insurer Munich Re found that the $1.6 trillion in losses from various catastrophes between 2001 and 2011 had more to do with human error and bad judgment than with bad luck.

People who study how complex systems work or fail have long known that introducing new or additional rules often increases the odds that the people operating the systems will make more mistakes. Under pressure from managers and machines, they are often undertrained, unfocused and distracted. Unless you are a machine, successful multitasking is an oxymoron.

Even the more efficient private sector strains to keep up. This week’s split of giant Hewlett-Packard into separate entities has put in play the idea that large size and successful corporate performance may have become incompatible. Public agencies of the scale and responsibility of those in the U.S., including the national-security bureaucracies, are simply falling off the grid. Think of the massive Homeland Security Department’s constantly morphing directives. How can their confused employees not fail?

The political class is clueless, or doesn’t care. With “reform” legislation such as Dodd-Frank, ObamaCare, Sarbanes-Oxley and the no-doubt imminent Ebola outlays, the compulsive fix-it men of politics make matters worse. These complex requirements are time bombs primed for more catastrophe—another financial crisis, another deadly VA scandal. They increase the confusions in an intrinsically error-prone bureaucratic system.

What to do? If progressivism’s technologists think the answer is a giant, centralized server farm running the whole government, a Big Algorithm with Google’s Eric Schmidt seated at the mighty organ, be my guest and program it for us. My guess is that the answer to this plague of bureaucratic damage runs in the opposite direction, toward scaled-down, distributed public responsibilities. Less power but better, safer performance.

That will be anathema to progressives who still want to pilot the ancient bureaucratic controls. But it should appeal to most people wanting mainly not to be killed by their government.