Everyone Loves a Villain

I set a pretty high bar for leaders last week, so let me come to their defense today. Yesterday, I attended a talk by my old professor and Fels director, Don Kettl, on the subject of public sector management. While we common folk perceive of public services as a sort of vending machine - insert tax dollars in slot, out come public services we ask for - the reality of getting stuff done in the public realm is vastly more complicated. After all, if what the public sector did was easy, there would be a private sector solution for it. But responding to heart attacks, fallen bridges, and terrorist threats calls for coordination of many vast bureaucracies, each with their own protocols, mission statements, and jurisdictions. It's a wonder anything at all gets done.

What was interesting for me to pick up during the talk was Dr. Kettl's explanation of the predicament in which Michael Brown found himself in after Katrina, and which BP finds itself in in the aftermath of the Gulf spill. The tragedy of these situations, Dr. Kettl contended, was not that Brown or BP were evil or stupid, but that they weren't and aren't and yet disaster still ensued and solutions were and are hard to come by.

With those comments, I could sense an almost corporate bristling throughout the crowd. Some could scarcely maintain a poker face, while others shifted uncomfortably. These were, after all, a person and an entity that we have all painted with broad brushes as incompetent, greedy, and uncaring. We did not want to accept Dr. Kettl's core notion, that Katrina and the Gulf spill are primarily case studies in the difficulty of getting complicated stuff done in the public realm, because that would take away from us the calming effect of having a villain to assign blame to for all that went wrong. Without a villain, there was tension in the room, because we had to deal with the notion that there was no easy release for the visceral angst that had built up in our psyches from the images we associate with Katrina and the Gulf spill.

I don't think Kettl was absolving or defending either Brown or BP. I am guessing he was pressing his point by purposely picking two deeply unpopular antagonists in the recent dramas that have played out in our airwaves to demonstrate that, even in those stark cases, the real cause for concern is that this kind of stuff is hard to get right. Alas, too often we don't think that far; instead, we look for a villain, and, having absolved ourselves from staying any longer in the discomfort of a royal mess, find relief in beating that villain mercilessly. Welcome to the joys of life in the public realm. Brown and BP deserve to be held to the high standard I described last week; but they do not deserve to be thoughtlessly pilloried by those of us who would rather satisfy our lust for justice by pinning everything on a straw villain rather than delving deeper into the complexities of what could have been done better.

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