07 January 2010

Difference between systemic and individual error

This strikes me as kind of basic, but there is a real difference in how an organization should respond to a a system failure and a failure of individual judgment. Moreover, even when the possible consequences are catastrophic for an individual mistake, it is still sometimes counterproductive to fire people, especially in a bureaucracy like the US government where it takes considerable resources to actually fire someone.

All of this is sadly lost on Andrew Sullivan right now, as he is intent that Obama must fires someone over the fact that the Underoo Bomber made it onto a plane with bomb intact, as it must represent an complete failure on someone's part.

In the end, Obama is like Bush in this respect. In the struggle between citizenry and big government in ensuring basic competence, big government always wins, and always, always protects its own. Just as Obama has protected government officials who committed war crimes, he is protecting those who failed in basic responsibilities. This guarantees that reforms won't work.

This ignores several possibilities that would make punishing just one person with one of the largest possible sanctions counterproductive. If several people made a small error, it doesn't make sense to fire anyone.

Even more likely, however, is the possibility that the people all behaved as they'd been told to, and that the policies involved were made by people operating on the best information and practices available.

Yes, there were people who knew that the Underoo Bomber had made threats. And there were people who let him on anyway. That doesn't necessarily mean that the people involved all had the right information, that the information was sent around properly, or anything else. Firing someone after a disaster does not always make sense.

(For another demonstration of this, look to North Korea's missile programs. They've been set back too many times from firing people for every single mistake. Let's be a bit more cautious.

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