Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Bureaucratic Blinkers and Learning

A letter to the editor in today's Washington Post notes that it's been a year since the World War II memorial was opened on the Mall, but Metro's signage has not been updated. From the comfort of my chair, without researching, it shows the problem with bureaucracy. Presumably either the Metro person responsible for signs and maps in the subway or a PR type in the Parks Service might have acted. But each person each day likely focused on immediate concerns within their sphere of responsibility, not on a broader focus. (Popular office sign: It's hard to remember your goal was to drain the swamp when you're up to your ass in alligators.)

It's like commuting--you drive a route a hundred times and you put on blinkers and turn off your mind. You take the route for granted, it fades to be part of the environment you ignore. For the Metro person, even in DC new tourist attractions don't open that often, it's not like you go into the office each day and ask what's new. Similarly for the National Parks PR person--she/he would seldom have occasion to ask Metro to update its maps.

Bureaucrats are capable of learning. Consider the heads of NASA. Daniel Goldin (1992-2001) learned that his motto (something like: "better, faster, cheaper") had problems, notably when NASA lost a couple Mars missions, one when the unit of measure of botched between a European contractor and the US one (another instance of environments taken for granted) Sean O'Keefe (2001-5) learned from Challenger. In both cases I'd expect the learning to be bone deep--you don't fail so drastically and publically without it sinking deep. Now we have a new administrator of NASA, Michael Griffin, with new plans, firing O'Keefe's people and putting in his own. One thing we can be sure of, Griffin surely knows of Goldin and O'Keefe's mistakes, but it's book knowledge, not bone deep. Griffin will try to avoid his predecessor's mistakes, but will make his own. I hope they won't be traumatic.

The problem with Metro signage, though, is the relative rarity of the opening of a new tourist site. Bureaucrats change position and don't learn from rare untraumatic events. (Of course, I could be wrong. It could be that Metro delayed changing its signs because of the expense. When Congress changed the name of National Airport, a particularly vociferous Representative forced Metro to spend a few hundred thousand dollars to update its signs with the new name. What Metro hasn't learned is to replace its signs with LCD screens.)

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