Saturday, September 17, 2005

No Substitute For Boots On The Ground

Even today, almost three weeks after Katrina made landfall, we're hearing from reporters about affected communities where FEMA and other government relief agencies are virtually invisible. "We saw someone from FEMA ten days ago, and he promised he'd be back. But there's been no sign of him, or of anyone else from FEMA," was the comment I heard from a homeless Mississippian on CNN last night--just one of many.

Given the unprecedented scope of this disaster, it's not surprising that the manpower available to FEMA, the combined state National Guard forces, and other agencies should be overstretched. (Diversion of Guards to Iraq doesn't help, obviously.) But one of the lessons of Katrina that deserves to be hammered home is an old one--constantly in need of relearning--that there is no subtitute for boots on the ground.

It's a constant technocratic dream that organizations can somehow eliminate most or all of the people they rely on, substituting machinery, more efficient systems, or self-operating programs for services provided by human beings. The dream dates back at least to the "automation" craze of the 1950s and was an important element in the Internet bubble and the "reengineering" fad in business. Today it's behind such fiascos as Rumsfeld's "modernized" military, which he mistakenly believed could control and reconstruct Iraq with a fraction of the manpower required for similar operations in the past, as well as the over-reliance of our intelligence agencies on technical means of gathering information (such as satellites and computer searches), to the neglect of "human intelligence" collected by people who know the languages and the cultures they are supposed to analyze.

The dream of eliminating people appeals to technocrats for many reasons. People are expensive, variable, and require training. They get tired and hungry, and when they die their families get upset. Worst of all, people have minds of their own. You can force employees (or soldiers) to do your bidding in the short run, but if you expect them to produce good results in any long, complicated project, you have to earn and maintain their support. No wonder men with quasi-fascist tendencies like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush prefer the fantasy of getting their way by pushing buttons.

It is actually possible to drastically reduce the number of people involved in certain organizational functions, such as manufacturing. Today there are factories run by a small handful of employees who merely oversee the operations of computerized machines. But when it comes to delivering services to a human clientele, there's a lot that only people can do. Only people on the ground can observe, understand, and report on human needs. (Lacking people on the ground, the director of FEMA had no idea what was going on at the New Orleans Convention Center.) Only people on the ground can communicate effectively, solve unanticipated problems in real time, and reshape plans to fit rapidly changing conditions. And, of course, only people on the ground can make human connections with other people, which is a crucial part of the equation for success, whether in Iraq, on the US Gulf Coast, or in any of the many other service functions provided by government.

This truth is the Achilles heel not only of the technocratic dream of "automation" but also of the conservative dream of dramatically downsizing government. It sounds good in the abstract, and of course everyone approves of lower taxes and more efficient administration. But in practical terms, no one (liberal or conservative) wants schools with too few teachers, VA hospitals that lack nurses and doctors, or Social Security offices that have no one to answer questions or disentangle red tape. And when the hurricane strikes, we all want government on our doorsteps--in a human form, quickly, and in massive numbers.
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