Eviscerating responsibility

As it seems to be unfolding, the Republican response to the very awkward Foley/page situation is following a familiar script, perfected as I recall by Ronald Reagan, that should be clearly parsed, the better to deplore its cowardice and real evil:

(1) Search up the hierarchy of command until you reach the level at which the affair in question is a small enough part of someone’s overall duties that that particular failure does not justify resignation. If necessary, keep going up to the top.

(2) Trot that person out to wring hands, “accept full responsibility” and say “the buck stops here”. Take care, however, to suppress any inference that the current disaster says anything about the boss’, or the organization’s overall performance or competence; he can bear any number of “last straws” as long as they arrive one by one and fall off his back quickly.

(3) Make it clear that at this level, accepting responsibility for this (relatively) small matter obviously doesn’t entail any actual action by, or consequences for, the official. At lower levels, of course, consequences don’t apply because the top guy has vacuumed up all responsibility (see (1) above).

(4) Throw one junior player over the rail so the sharks have something to eat. If someone is already at the rail, pop a geolocator in his pocket to guide the sharks. Blow smoke from the “thorough investigation” machine.

(5) (Bush administration refinement) Give an intermediate level player who has completely botched the operation a “heckuva job” medal. Remarkably, this can actually be the same person used in (4) with careful timing.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

7 thoughts on “Eviscerating responsibility”

  1. This may have started with Reagan, but was brought to perfection by Janet Reno over Waco.

  2. Such an old tactic and how long has it worked for them? And why have the demo's let them get away with it? And just who is going to do anything about it? Which Democrat has the spine to stand up on his or her hindquarters and bray:ENOUGH?

  3. Tried and true; insofar as I recall, the investigation into who screwed up in allowing the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon was indeed called off — because Reagan had said he accepted "responsibility." But I have serious doubts that it will work this time, due to the unfortunate timing for the Republicans. Either Hastert hangs on and costs them a few crucial votes in swing districts, or he leaves, validating the seriousness of an indisguisably Republican scandal on the eve of those elections. I am not sure that even skilled execution of the strategy can get them out of this one.

  4. Umm, when did Bush take responsibility for Katrina, or Baghdad, or 9-11, or any other fiasco? The "Helluva job, Brownie" strategy is an alternative to the Reagan strategy, not an addition to it.

  5. Mark: I will never say the Republicans are handling this properly… but I wonder: are you the pot or the kettle?

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