Something Broken in America?

WASHINGTON – America may be in economic trouble right now; but one of the perceived core strengths of this country is that, compared to everybody else, we have made constant modernization, perpetual re-engineering and the striving for greater and greater efficiencies in all sectors into a science. We are world leaders in information technology and all its cascading applications. We have the best software companies. We have the business and management schools that teach aspiring leaders from all over the world the secrets of super efficiency. We are the leaders in computer manufacturing and the most popular internet search engines. We have Apple’s IPhone and unmanned Predator aircraft maneuvered by a few techies in Nevada that can target bad guys in the mountains of Pakistan. We have some of the best R&D in biotech, pharmaceuticals and space technologies.

Well, may be we do; even though the pace of investing in innovation has slackened somewhat and others are catching up. But the ability to keep and maintain high standards of efficiency, whether reliant on state of the art technology, competent pros or both is not so unquestionable these days.

Take a few illustrative examples, unrelated, but chosen here because they happened recently, within a relatively short span of time.

Systemic failures

A) We had a computer glitch within the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, system that caused nationwide chaos in air traffic control, with flight delays piling up on delays for almost an entire day, disrupting air travel for more than half the nation.

B) Then there was the almost comical episode of the “lost” NorthWest flight. Well, the pilots, otherwise engaged, missed the airport where they were supposed to land and carried on chatting for more than one hour, flying the aircraft God knows where. Worse yet, the air traffic control people on the ground, aware that something was wrong, could not get in contact with the flight crew for more than one hour.

C) More recently there is the story of Army Major Nidal Hasan. Of course, this grabbed headlines, given the tragedy of all those servicemen killed by him. The story, as presented so far, is whether or not the Army security apparatus should have been able to spot Hasan’s dangerous dispositions on time and prevent him from killing soldiers. But, in my mind, the real story is that internal records indicate that Major Hasan, irrespective of his views on Islam or jihad, was a really bad doctor, according to the judgment of his superior officers, duly included in his file.

Bad doctor kept in the ranks

The story, as reported by National Public Radio, among others, is that Major Hasan had a truly bad professional record. He did not show up on time. In fact, sometimes he did not show up at all. One of his superiors wanted him removed. But the story shows that, bad reports notwithstanding, all in his file, the system’s inertia allowed a bad Army doctor who was performing poorly to be kept in the ranks –and in fact to be promoted to Major.

So, the system, and I am referring here to the “basic system”, the vaunted “armed forces meritocracy”, where you are supposed to perform according to a given standard, did not work. Hasan could not be axed and then, later on, he did what he did.

D) Last but not least, we have the recent episode of the uninvited couple who managed to sneak into the White House for the very first state dinner in honor of the visiting Indian Prime Minister. The story has been presented as some sort of prank engineered by a publicity hungry, clever couple. “Look at this: how far are people willing to go in order to get attention….They got into the White House…Now they’ll sell the story to the tabloids”…Etc. etc.

Except that this was not a United Way fund raiser. This is “The White House”, theoretically one of the most secure fortresses in the world, protected by a small army of ultra trained Secret Service professionals whose job is to establish and keep layers of security and to check on anything and anybody, 24/7. Whereas, super security apparatus notwithstanding, an enterprising couple could just sweet talk their way in? And nobody noticed? So that they could go through layers of security and end up shaking hands with the President of the United States?

In the age of terrorism, post 9/11 and all that, this is an astonishing security failure, revealing a shocking degree of amateurism on the part of the supposedly super professional Secret Service.

Accepting lower standards

Alright. So, what is the point of all this? The point is not that the “sky is falling”; but that something fundamental is not working well. We have systemic failure at various levels, revealing outmoded technologies and underperforming professionals who are not up to the demands of their jobs. What is worse, we do not see real public outcry.

Among policy makers it is old hat that we are saddled with FAA ancient equipment; and so it is not really a surprise that on occasion the system will crash, throwing half the country air traffic into chaos. But policy-makers look the other way and continue to under invest, allowing this dangerous situation to fester. Do we hear any protests? Likewise, we allow sloppy performance in the cases of supposedly skilled people who do not know their job or who cannot perform their job. And this includes the pilots who miss the airport, the air traffic control people who fail to make contact with them and the Secret Service who cannot spot those who belong and those who do not from a list of VIPs invited to a state dinner at the White House.

Inability to be selective

But the worst among these is the case of the inability of the “Army system” to get rid of an underperforming physician, because this instance reveals tolerance for “generic” under performance. By and large, unless something dramatic happens, as in the case of Major Hasan, many cases of tolerance for sloppy work are destined to remain hidden. This way mediocre or bad people stay on the job and get promoted; whereby silently lowering many standards –and nobody says anything.

How many more mediocre doctors?

If Major Hasan had not had this outburst of insanity (whether tied to his self-radicalization as a lonely Jihadist, or not), he would have continued to serve as a sub par Army psychiatrist paid by all of us and nobody would have known any better. The question is: how many other Major Hasan equivalent are there within our vast system of public (and private, for that matter) services? Now we know about Hasan because of the scrutiny caused by the horrible event that he engineered. But, had he killed no one, he would continue to be a bad Army doctor, providing bad service to unaware servicemen and no one would know; while the system, supposedly geared towards weeding out the sub par people, would continue to tolerate him. And this means that, in an untold number of cases, we are tolerating mediocrity, underperformance and substandard service.

Low standards are the new normal

Now, the point here is not to exaggerate and reach the gloomy conclusion that “nothing works in America”. Of course, many other things work and some work very well. But the point is that in a complex, knowledge based, service focused, modern society whose claim to fame is a very high standard of performance across the board, a high standard, demanding as it is, should be the only acceptable norm. Whereas, we have come to accept sloppiness and underperformance as “part of life”, due to “human error”, or due to “lack of funds” that do not allow, for example, the modernization of an ancient air traffic control system.

And so, subtly and implicitly we have redefined our standards down. “Stuff happens”. “It is too bad”.” But, look, don’t complain too much, most of the time things really work as intended”. Whereas, the truth is that now there is higher tolerance for failure. Indeed, these various instances of egregious bad performance do not seem to cause major public outcries.

We want to forget failures

Even in extreme cases, we would rather forget, as in the instance of the confused and late response to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an event that reveled horrendous gaps in our national preparedness for such calamities. Well, after the outcry, we brush it aside, in the same manner as we would like to forget a bad dream. So, after a while, nobody talks about it anymore, just as if it did not happen.

And yet, If lower standards become the implicitly accepted “new normal”, then we cannot be surprised when failures become more frequent and when we shall see others, motivated by higher standards, passing us by.

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