Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A true leadership opportunity for our government.

As we've all recognized, the system failed (see this editorial from today's New York Times, here). Here's what I think should happen next, if we are going to see true leadership from the top down.

1. Find out which people made tragically bad decisions about Mr. Abdulmutallab's ability to travel here, given the numerous "do not let this person on a plane to the U.S." clues that we managed to miss. Look for the actual people who made the actual decisions.

2. Ask them why they made those decisions. Find out why they didn't, e.g., share information among agencies, act upon the signals that Mr. Abdulmutallab should not fly, or become more proactive about our nation's safety.

3. Evaluate their decisions, not just in the light of 20/20 hindsight but in terms of what information and incentives they had while they were actually making their decisions. If their decisions were bad in light of the information that they had, then take all appropriate action (in other words, fire them). If their decisions were reasonable--and I'm having a hard time figuring out how that possibility might be true, but I'm willing to keep an open mind--use their decisions to fix the holes in our system.

4. Do not fire Janet Napolitano as a knee-jerk reaction before investigating the causes of our security failure. Personally, I believe that this failure is systemic enough that she should step down voluntarily, but not before she takes with her (on a non-voluntary basis) all of those people who made bad decisions notwithstanding good information. Even though she didn't personally cause the failure in the system, it did occur on her watch.

Accountability starts from the top down. I don't believe that all heads of organizations should commit virtual seppuku every time the people who report to them (or the people down the chain of command) make bad decisions. But sometimes those decisions are of such a magnitude that there's real value in the head of the organization stepping down as well.

Firing Napolitano without investigating the causes of this failure makes a mockery of accountability because it eliminates the incentives for the actual decisionmakers to act with care. They can fail without consequences if only the head of Homeland Security suffers. ("Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.")

Only if accountability permeates all the way through an organization does a culture change.

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