Sherrod unleashes an avalanche of insight

Wow, is the Breitbart/Sherrod/Vilsack story a Golconda of learnable moments, or what? Let us count the ways:

(1) At some point, USDA was justifying firing Sherrod by proudly pointing to its “zero-tolerance” policy on racism.   ‘Zero defects’ is a management slogan with some utility as a goal in quality assurance, actually a restatement of ‘continuous improvement’,  but even there not a serious floor under actual performance.  Zero tolerance, however, is up there with “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in the pantheon of really stupid airport management book bromides [would you fly on on airplane maintained according to the latter rule? was the reason for Beethoven’s ninth symphony that the first eight were broken or defective in some way?]; it’s an excuse to shelve judgment and hide behind a rule book.  It’s cowardly.  The only organization properly managed on a zero tolerance basis has no actual people in it. As Bob Leone taught me, good management isn’t about eliminating risk, sometimes not even reducing it, but choosing the right risks.

(2) Not everyone with access to the internet is a journalist or a reliable source or honest or decent. Again, there’s no escape from judgment and discrimination: Breitbart has been right about so many things (whether he prefers his own coffee with or without cream, the likelihood that the sun would rise in the morning, whether it’s safe to cross the street now, etc.) and yet,  to get all bent out of shape when he claims to have a smoking gun video about something is either cowardice or the sleep of reason; enter nightmare.

(3) When these things go off the rails, it seems they are jinxed indefinitely.  What job did Vilsack offer Sherrod to make things right? A job being in charge of non-discrimination in USDA; oy vey.  Sherrod, who is coming off like a tree full of owls, is diffident about being USDA’s recycling bin into which everyone else can shed their duties in this regard. She isn’t quoted as saying it, but is probably thinking that there’s something wrong with the idea that discrimination is an issue [women and] people of color have, and that an affirmative action officer has to be black or brown.

And there is something wrong with it: pervasive racism in USDA, directed against blacks, is what white USDA officials had and what, through a devastating lawsuit, has damaged the whole agency, not just its minority staff and black farmers.  Having someone other than the CEO in charge of quality assurance is usually a signal that quality assurance is a distraction or a side issue; same for having an affirmative action officer or whatever you call it: “I don’t have to actually act affirmatively, we have Shirley to do that for us”. Private firms don’t have a “vice president for being profitable”; being profitable is everyone’s job in a way that deliveries and facility maintenance is not.  Not discriminating is everyone’s job, (i) not a peripheral function that should be offloaded to an administrative unit with a figurehead manager, and especially, despite Breitbart’s apparent belief to the contrary, (ii) not something minorities and women have been especially neglecting and need to get better at, or (iii) not something that only benefits discrimination victims.

Another thing that’s wrong with it is the insulting implication that having given a good speech about her personal learning history and having been, briefly, a poster girl for mistreatment somehow makes Sherrod qualified to work this kind of transformation in a large, inertial agency.  Her expertise is in rural development  and building farmers’ prosperity, not in HR or organizational transformation: what does it say about Vilsack’s real motivation to succeed in the not-discriminating business that he would appoint someone to advance it who has no visible qualifications, expertise or experience in the task?

The Obama administration is increasingly taking hits from Democrats for being wimpy and not taking the fight to its enemies [note: I use the word enemies on purpose; the motivation of the rump that has captured the Republican party to damage the current administration and congressional majority, rather than to accomplish anything in the area of governance and policy beyond enriching its donors, is amply demonstrated] and much too deferential in the face of the right-wing media fringe.  This episode can be a wake-up along these lines, and explicitly recognizing a difference between partisan megaphones and real journalists would be a good entry to a better path.

A last note: (1) has some resonance with the nonsense floating around about the late lamented Journolist listserv.  Aside from the scurrilous quality of snooping around in stolen off-the-records archives to no real purpose except sneering and smirking, the idea that having found this or that careless musing someone once said has any value in understanding the person or his friends is a version of the zero-defects fallacy.  And I rush to disclose that I was a member of j-list, am a member of its successor, and I didn’t conspire, plot, or coordinate these remarks with any of their members, though they are at least 20% more insightful (from whatever base) than they would have been without having learned from the discussions there.  Sheesh.

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.

11 thoughts on “Sherrod unleashes an avalanche of insight”

  1. The crazy right isn't worth trying to understand (the hit here is something along the lines of reverse racism, which is an idiotic idea to begin with). But they have an uncanny ability to sow chaos, which can be used to broadly stoke anger and fear in the electorate. The smears have become a weekly occurrence. (Anyone know if someone is putting together a list?)

    So Obama has two options: to respond or not. Either way the meme might metastasize. Like the Gates incident, acting without thinking first got them into a lot of heat. The assumption needs to be one of very cautious skepticism, that anything being said by the right needs to be checked and double-checked before being taken seriously *at all*. Democrats need to wise up to the fact that the right has become preternaturally sleazy.

  2. This was nothing but panic by Vilsack and the Administration. Who does not stop and ask questions before firing Sherrod?

    A known right-wing provocateur puts a two-minute clip of a long-ago speech on the Internet and you fire Sherrod without any more quetsions? Vilsack didn't even have the wit to say he needed to learn more, to talk to Sherrod, to see the whole speech. It's a stunning display of cowardice, made all the worse by the fact that had he displayed minimal common sense the incident would have been a major embarrassment for the Administrations opponents, and especially Breitbart.

    Once again, can't anybody here play this game?

  3. "am a member of its successor"

    I don't think you're supposed to confirm the existence of a successor.

  4. Someone must have been telling lies about Shirley S., for without having done anything wrong she was fired one fine morning.

  5. "the hit here is something along the lines of reverse racism, which is an idiotic idea to begin with"

    Well, that's certainly true; Racism is racism whether you're prejudiced against blacks or whites, there's no 'reverse' about it.

  6. Last I heard, Congress still needs to approve the $1.25 billion that USDA needs to pay to minority farmers for the "Pigford Settlement". The Senate has stripped it out of several bills already, but it's now riding on the upcoming war supplemental. No doubt the GOPers will try to strip it out of that, too, so they can vote to spend tens of billions on Afghanistan and Iraq with a clear conscience.


  7. Maybe, just maybe Obama and his guys will finally get tired of being suckered by the right and figure out who their enemies are (and their friends) and start acting achordingly. I somehow doubt it but hope springs eternal.

  8. Folks,

    Hopefully this is an "adult" moment for us all; the moment when we start listening to "adults" instead of shills.

  9. This could well be Obama's version of the "fighting off the rabbit from the boat" moment. The administration looks ridiculous. They offer Ms. Sherrod the title of "Chief Political Correctness Officer"! I hope she tells them to put it where the sun doesn't shine!

  10. This is the first I've heard of a successor list, although it's not that surprising. SP might be exaggerating a bit, but it would be good to have a public line from the beginning about the successor – what it is, what types of folks are involved, what's the level of disclosure.

  11. One thing we may be confident about: The successor will also be ideologically exclusive, as the purpose of the list isn't to advance journalism, it's to advance the interests of the Democratic party through journalism. If I'm wrong about that purpose, I will also be wrong about the continued exclusivity, as one thing this whole affair has demonstrated is the nasty effect it has on people when they confine themselves to an echo chamber.

    And that's all Journolist was.

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