Washington Monthly Founder on How Federal Agencies are Like Families

I don’t think it has been announced yet on RBC that we entered a few months back into a partnership with Washington Monthly. RBC posts are now regularly carried on WashMo’s “Ten Miles Square” blog, where you can also read stimulating comments by a number of other bloggers.

To wit, my fellow West Virginia mountaineer, Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters, has an insider’s take on why agencies cover up known problems when dealing with Congress, journalists and other outsiders. Although Charlie doesn’t use this metaphor in his post, agencies are like families. Among themselves, they may squabble, back stab and criticize, but when the neighbors come over, they present a unified front. Charlie is no doubt correct that the current poisonous atmosphere in Washington exacerbates the tendency of agencies to withhold information from Congress, but the basic instinct for families/tribes to stick together will always be present to some degree because evolution has encoded it into human nature.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

3 thoughts on “Washington Monthly Founder on How Federal Agencies are Like Families”

  1. All Charlie Peters says is true. To which I can only add that it is only true for agencies with decent morale. As morale goes down, so does loyalty to the agency. Since loyalty to the country is more-or-less constant, unhappy agencies eventually become leaky.
    If morale were lockstep correlated with dysfunction, this would probably be a reasonable state of affairs. But some dysfunctional agencies have decent morale, and some good agencies don’t have great morale.

  2. The Iron Law of Institutions is: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution “fail” while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution.

  3. That is very true. You can’t fight human nature and basic instincts make families and agencies alike act together as one. However, all the problems within can not be contained forever. Like a family, there is often the one or two members who deviate fromt the norm. They get fed up and eventually, all the covering up will reach a maximum, and things will leak. That could potentially destroy the agency’s credibility.

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