Getting Past the Blame Game

Hurricane Katrina is the reigning poster child for government failure. In the days and weeks that followed, pundits and politicians rushed to fix blame on...
by | November 17, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

Hurricane Katrina is the reigning poster child for government failure. In the days and weeks that followed, pundits and politicians rushed to fix blame on a variety of public officials--the governor, the mayor, the head of FEMA and the president all came under fire.

Government has seen more than its share of failures lately. When we see these high profile snafus, we want to understand what went wrong. The easy answer is, "Someone messed up." In many cases, however, the underlying cause of the problem was systemic--the process was flawed. In the same way, the process by which government tackles large undertakings is broken, but instead of fixing the process we devote extensive energy to a national "blamestorming" contest.

The truth is that inept and corrupt characters do exist in government to some extent, as they do in every sphere. But these few bad apples distract us from looking for the underlying systemic reasons for our shortcomings. In the case of Katrina, the lack of coordination between federal, state, and local governments--a systemic feature of our democracy--greatly contributed to the disastrous response. This wasn't just a people problem, it was a process problem.

The business world has been through this already.

In the 1940s, W. Edwards Deming, a pioneer of Total Quality Management (TQM), went against the conventional wisdom of that time when he taught manufacturing companies that "the worker is not the problem." For Deming, understanding the system was critical to fixing the source of errors. A system is an invisible network of interdependent components that must work together to achieve a desired goal--the various steps on an assembly line, for example, or the various activities needed to put a man on the moon. Part of Deming's genius was to stop blaming the poor slob working on the assembly line for the defect found at the end of the line. Instead, Deming argued that leaders should examine a business process as a unified whole. Outcomes are generated by people working within a system. Successful companies, such as Toyota, are fanatical about improving the systems through which they create value--they call it the "Toyota Production System" for a reason. They know that the only way to generate great results with average workers is to have great systems, and the more complex and interrelated the firm's processes, the more important systems thinking becomes.

A hundred years ago, cutting-edge corporate practice was the assembly line. Today, work flows cross both company lines and international boundaries, with practices such as outsourcing, just-in-time inventory, and supply chain management. People are still critically important, but the process of creating value for a customer is more complex and interrelated than ever before. Tools such as Six Sigma, business process reengineering, and systems thinking have been developed to deal with this increased process complexity.

Government and its work are more complicated than in the past as well. One hundred years ago, the cutting-edge innovation was the bureaucracy. The bureaucratic model of government served rather well for a long time, but as tasks and technology changed, so did the systems government used to do its work. As public officials are discovering, approaches such as public-private partnerships and governing by network are far more complicated, from a systems perspective, than traditional bureaucratic operations. Our understanding of these increasingly complex arrangements hasn't kept pace with the reality of modern governance.

Consider the government health programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and SCHIP, which provide health services to the elderly, the poor, and children, respectively. By manipulating a complicated set of market levers, a group of just 4,500 federal employees shapes a health care system in which more than a million workers--in hospitals, insurance companies, state agencies, and so forth--provide care to 74 million beneficiaries. The opportunity for systemic failure is huge. Indeed, Government Accountability Office audits of Medicare routinely find billions in erroneous overpayments and other systemic flaws. But the invisible systems through which government executes these policies is poorly understood by policy makers and utterly incomprehensible to the general public. Instead, when it comes to big government failures, it is the shortcomings of people that receive almost all the attention.

Systems thinking isn't new. But it is poorly understood within the public sector. The siloed, bureaucratic systems of centuries past have left a legacy that focuses our attention on the power pyramid, instead of the complex processes and interrelated activities of public agencies and their private sector partners. For government to get better, faster and cheaper will require serious attention be paid to the invisible systems through which government does its work. It's time to get past the blame game and get to work fixing the system.

William D. Eggers of Deloitte and John O'Leary are the coauthors of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government" published November 2009 by Harvard Business Press, from which this article is adapted.