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Commentary: The myth of command and control

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2010 - The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which has cost lives and livelihoods and threatens to permanently damage the ecosystem, also provides considerable information about the vulnerability of large organizations.

Many in the press and around the nation seem to infer that corporations and government have greater capacity than in fact they do. Several commentators have called on the White House to "command and control" the situation.

The term "command and control" harkens back to classical public administration. Theorists then believed that bureaucracies could be honed and fine tuned into instruments wherein the bottom rungs would function in accord with thinking at the top. Rules and regulations and standard operating procedures would ensure conformity and efficiency. When the head nods, the tail wags.

In 1960, Herbert Kaufman wrote "The Forest Ranger." For a number of decades, the Forest Service was the perfect command and control organization. Although alone in the forest, the Ranger adhered to the rules and regs. His badge, uniform promoted a special unity. There were yearly evaluatory visits that were very thorough. Most important, manuals contained preformed decisions. There would be several acceptable ways of handling evey possible incident. If the ranger used one of these ways, he was covered despite the end result. The rangers all came from forestry colleges and promotion was always from within.

This ideyllic command and control world no longer exists. And some would say it was always too favorable to timber interests.

Plus, such conformity and efficiency have been questioned. Theorists of the human relations school and of organization behavior have tried for decades to find mechanisms that would prevent individual bureaucrats from setting their own course, while allowing creativity and personal satisfaction. Reward systems have been a frequent tool. In addition to money, some try to make certain that those who have to implement a plan have a say in developing policy and procedures to prevent deviation.

People are still trying to make such a system work, but the larger an organization, whether public or private, the more difficult it is to control behavior and even to gather information that would indicate whether behavior is controlled. Hence, "command and control" can never be assumed or ensured.

The federal government is a key case in point. The government is, in fact, a cluster of many large organizations whose staff and work are not known by the occupant of the Oval Office. Top-down involvement in implementation becomes essential only when a new policy is created or a crisis must be dealt with.

Does that mean that better oversight would not be useful? No. In many areas of federal responsibility, from agriculture to defense, bureaucrats who interact with producers in the private sector often become allies of those they regulate. Members of key congressional subcommittees are members of these cozy trios. Once known as "iron triangles," these subgovernments made up of bureaucrats, special interests and key congressional committees serve the private rather than the public sector.

It is no wonder that workers on site for the Minerals Management Service allowed BP officials to fill out their own inspection forms. Similar events have happened in other governmental contexts.

Likewise, the CEO of BP would not be aware of all the wells his company operated or even just the deep water wells. He would set policy in consultation with his top people but whether that policy was heeded or heeded with sufficient import is never certain. He also may not receive complete information about problems in the field. Information in an organization may be incomplete or inaccurate and it may not reach the top or bottom.

In addition, the company's values are reflected in how it evaluates and remunerates employees. If the emphasis is on enhancing profit, speed will be valued over safety and will become part of the organization's culture.

For government or corporations the key is implementation. Too often, emphasis is on creation and end results and insufficient attention is paid to how those results are achieved. The larger the company or the governmental entity, the harder it becomes to monitor implementation.

Bureaucracies of any kind represent attempts to harness complexity. But their behavior cannot be taken for granted. Those who staff them have multiple allegiances and multiple needs. They respond to the immediate and to serve their own comfort.

Command and control cannot work. Persuasion and cooperation help but, a president or a corporate chief executive would still need eyes and ears at many levels.

Commentators who recently called on the president to "command and control" wanted him to take charge of staunching the oil flow and cleaning up the gulf. Omitting the question of capacity, sheer command will not achieve the objective. However, the question of command and control of this disaster cannot be left in BP's hands alone. The costs of this disaster are stark and demonstrate the failings of large complex organizations. These organizations are necessary to modern life but they do not operate smoothly or necessarily efficiently. Scholars continue to try to address the problem of getting the organization, the employees, to perform as designed, but so far with only partial success. Tails don't always wag when heads nod.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.

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