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The perils of faux-countability

After the screwup comes the inevitable demands for a head -- or, even better -- heads to roll. Call it faux-countability, the phenomenon by which someone takes the fall for a mess that he or she is at most only partly responsible for.

A would-be bomber gets on a plane: Fire Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano!

Three people sneak their way into a state dinner: Fire White House social secretary Desiree Rogers! Fire the head of the Secret Service, too!

I’m all in favor of real accountability -- canning the incompetent, in government and out. If you’re in over your head, then by all means: out the door. When a senior official demonstrably flubs a critical task or demonstrates bad judgment, then by all means: out the door in time for the evening news.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a good example of a man who got it wrong and stayed -- or was allowed to stay -- too long. Michael Brown, the hapless former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is a good example of a man who never should have been in the job -- and was appropriately fired when it became clear that he had fiddled while New Orleans flooded.

And there no doubt were, in the Christmas almost-bombing and the state dinner security breach, human as well as systemic failures. Someone was so dazzled by the sight of Michaele Salahi in a sari that he forgot to check the official guest list to see if the couple was actually invited. Someone, or ones, failed to take seriously enough the warning from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father about his son’s growing radicalization. These things should go, as my kids would say, in their permanent record.

But as satisfying as it might feel to haul out the guillotine, as mesmerizing as the descent of the glittering blade, the only problem these public beheadings solve is political. The lapses that let Abdulmutallab on board the plane with explosives sewn inside his underwear are not likely to be traceable to any individual Cabinet secretary. Playing another round of musical chairs with the counter-terrorism bureaucracy would only serve to add to the disorder, not resolve it.

The faux-countability instinct is even stronger in sports, as the recent firing of Redskins coach Jim Zorn demonstrates. But is this a rational response to a bad season? A 2006 economic study of six seasons of Portuguese soccer suggest not.

“Our results show that firing the coach does not improve the team's performance and, on the contrary, seems to have a harmful effect in the long-run,” the author Sandra Maximiano concludes. “[T]eams that fired the coach after a spell of bad results seem to recover after firing. But this would also have happened if they had chosen not to fire the coach, simply because luck would eventually turn on their side.”

Indeed, Maximiano finds, compared to similarly underperforming teams that kept their coaches, teams that fired coaches tended to score fewer goals and concede more goals. “Our results suggest that the coach is merely a scapegoat,” she writes, “used by the team's board to appease disgruntled fans and perhaps to distract attention from their own bad management choices.”

Sounds awfully familiar -- to close observers of sports and politics alike.

By Ruth Marcus  | January 7, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Marcus  | Tags:  Ruth Marcus  
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Next: Some campaign promises matter more than others


Accountability starts at the top.
Attitudes determines altitude.
Heard these things before?
Think they are just platitudes devoid of significance, or are they principles that matter?
Ask any parent.
Ask any leader.
They would know the answer.
Apparently,Ms. Marcus, you do not.

Posted by: flamorte | January 7, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

"Accountability starts at the top"

The top of what?
You must be new to this country, let me help you.
First off, a "leader" keeps a small cadre of "fall guys" nearby at all times. These individuals serve no other purpose than catching the rhetorical slugs that might otherwise harm the "leaders" standing. Once one of these individuals is so chopped up that they become dead weight, the leader drops him, normally " so he can spend more time with his family", and selects a new human shield for the next barrage.
And there will be a "next barrage", there always is.
If it seems heartless to jettison your wounded, one need only look to recent examples...Donald Rumsfeld for discover what happens when a "leader" crouches behind the same human shield too long.
For further information on this topic, I suggest you consult an encyclopedia referencing "Things that roll down hill."
No need to thank me, I'm a liberal and am always glad to help if I can.

Posted by: dijetlo | January 7, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Sports teams operate in a completely different environment. A few injuries, a bad bounce, a blown call and a contender becomes a loser. A coach should not be evaluated on wins and losses but on how well the team operations are managed and how well they spot and develop talent. If you talk to players who have played with several teams they'll tell you how messed up the front office is or isn't. Those with good front office operations are usually those with winning records or losing records where the losses where all very close. Those that are a mess are usually a mess on the field.

As for government and business, continuity counts for a lot. Business as usual in a dysfunctional environment is obviously bad, but a hiccup or two in a well managed concern does not require a firing it requires an after action report and appropriate changes to operating procedures.

But lets talk about real accountability. Starting sometime under W, perhaps even earlier, if you commit a serious crime that does not involve shooting a gun, stabbing a person or armed robbery you just have to say you are sorry any carry on as normal. Where are the prosecutions of people who lied on mortgage applications? It's a crime. Or mortgage lenders who engaged in conspiracy to get loan approvals in a fraudulent manner? Or how about the Bushies who undermined the constitution by various means? Now that Obama has control of the White House doesn't he have control over the documents that would implicate or exculpate? I worked in the mortgage industry many years ago. When I heard about no-doc loans I thought nothing good will come of this. I also thought some people would go to jail for it. If I had known everyone would get a free pass I would have participated. I considered it, even with the risk of jail, but chickened out. If I had only known...

Posted by: caribis | January 7, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I like your concept of faux-countability. I think the people involved should always be considered more important than the process or result. My experience suggests that practically all the time, the fired individual (or for that matter, the promoted one) had little or no unique impact on the outcome. In the case of airport security, the task is to see the future and prevent it from happening. No individual, group or process will ever accomplish that task. On the other hand, Janet Napolitano clearly misspoke when she said the system worked. But I forgive her because she has drunk the government kool-aid that says the government can provide airport security, a clearly impossible task.

Posted by: bruce18 | January 7, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Let me make sure I understand this:

- The person at the head of an organization is not responsible for the competent execution of policy by the people s/he oversees.

So what precisely is Secretary Napolitano's job? To make ridiculous statements on the Sunday talk shows and "clarify" them later? To provide gender balance on the cabinet?

- Secretary of Homeland Security = Portuguese soccer coach

So the coach of a soccer team controls an annual budget of $52 billion. Who'd have guessed?

It's convenient that the (il)logic of Ruth's commentary can also be extended to defend the president.

Posted by: WylieD | January 7, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I think Napolitano is not the only problem, not even close...and she has only partial accountability and it probably does not rise to a firing situation.

However, her record so far is very worrying. It goes far past her "the system worked well" blunder. This is a woman with no security experience. She is a lawyer. She sees the ideological conflict with radical Islam as a law enforcement issue when enemies strike...but outside that as an "educational and good works" matter to convince Islamoids they should love us. Her speeches on enemy attacks - Hasan, overseas attacks, the Abdulmuttalab incident were replete with "suspect, alleged" Lawyer-Speak from her, and instant assertions that any Islaoid attack is "an isolated incident" that "our law enforcement heroes are investigating", "a conviction may be coming". and "while the suspect is awaiting trial in a few years, it is prejudicial to speculate about if holy Islam, a wonderful religion, had any bearing".

Napolitano also let Justice rule that Hasan and Abdulmuttalab could "lawyer-up" without a peep of protest from her.

She is the one who also hates the word terrorism, preferring "man-caused disasters". And infamously had her people put out a crap bulletin that claimed the greatest threat to America (by way of "man-caused disasters) was not Islamoids, but now Right-Wing Lone Wolves of the evil hetero white male sort. With soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq a "particularly dangerous element" potentially if they embrace right-wing violence, "given their military skills".

Well, maybe Napolitano is not fireable yet...but lets hope that she knows what we know and what we hope Obama knows - her performance has been awful so far, she should be on thin ice, and she should be out the door the next time she screws up.

Posted by: ChrisFord1 | January 7, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

The degree of success ANY endeavor achieves is directly proportional to the quality of leadership in charge. Whether a Fortune 500 Corp or simply a family unit this truth is universal. The quality of leadership in this Presidents cabinet is suspect to say the least. This casts additional doubt on his own leadership.

Posted by: Folklight | January 7, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Sign in Harry Truman's desk: The Buck Stops Here.

Sign on Barack Obama's desk: The B. S. Starts Here.

Posted by: Jerzy | January 7, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Concerning one comment from Ms. Marcus. Michael Brown, the former FEMA director under Bush, was probably no better or no worse than the majority of political appointees of either party. It's pretty clear that most of the New Orleans fiasco lay squarely at the feet of their mayor and the Louisiana governor. I'm a Democrat but I get tired of seeing the Bush Administration continue to be bashed for their handling of Katrina in ways that are not their fault. There's no guarantee that Obama's political appointees will operate more effectively, either, when the chips are down, and every indication to the contrary- witness the recent fiasco over White House guests. This is just part of the price that we pay for having a democracy, and the benefits are that Ms. Marcus can write a column such as she did and that someone like me can point out the flawed logic or errors.

Posted by: ripvanwinkleincollege | January 7, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Marcus is exactly right.

If the Postal Service delivers your package a day late, that's not a rational reason for the President to resign.

Guess what? There's NO way to prevent a determined terrorist. If we have Stalin-esque 'purges' in the administration every time some dim-witted jihadi tries something, talented individuals will avoid government service like the plague.

Posted by: web_user | January 7, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

The fault in the DHS lies with whomever received the report from Abdulmutallab's father and failed to upgrade his status to strip search or deny entry. If, as seems evident, that the DHS policy is to do exactly what happened in the Abdulmutallab case, then Napolitano is clearly at fault. Napolitano shouldn't be fired for the fact that the X-mas Bomber got on the plane. She should be fired for incompetency running the department, and uttering false statements to the American people.

White House social secretary Desiree Rogers should be fired for failure to respond to the verify the identity of the intruders to the Secret Service. If the policy of the Secret Service was to use personal judgement on the part of the agents to allow the uninvited guests in; then the head of the Secret Service should be fired. If there was no such policy, then the agents made an unforgiveable error and should be terminated. Of course if Ms Marcus knew anything about how the Secret Service trains and evaluates its recruits; she'd know that the decisions and actions of the agents on the gate that night were total violations of Secret Service policy and ethic.

Rumsfeld set illegal policies in place for the military to carry out. He should have been terminated, and tried in court for it; as should the military commanders who acquiesed to his orders. Any officer worth a damn would have said these orders are against international law and the UCMJ advised the Sec Def as such. If Rummy persisted, then the officer would have been justified in taking it to the President, and failing there, to the public at large as part of the process of tendering his or her resignation from the military. And there is ample historical precident for doing so.

Any public official who breaks the law or violates the Constitution should be canned.

Posted by: mhoust | January 7, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Not a surprising opinion from a liberal. Everything in life is "complicated, requires "nuance," and is not fit for "cookie cutter solutions." Mix in the government union labor rules, and no one ever takes a fall for anything.

Those of us who have been "workers" in private enterprise find this characteristic of liberals, and particularly those in, or in love with big government one of the their least endearing traits.

I'm surprise that Marcus didn't say that the solution to the screw ups is more "outreach," additional "training," more "educational opportunities," etc. As it is, she advocates for no adverse action for anyone, but then has not solutions either.

What a ditz.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | January 7, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Curmudgeon10, what on earth are you talking about? Corporate America is probably even worse than government when it comes to this. Ever heard of the "Peter Principle"? Better yet, the "Dilbert Principle"? (in any corporate organization, a person is promoted to the level where he/she is thought to be able to do the least amount of damage)

Both government and business breed a particular brand of incompetence. It's folly to say one is worse than the other or to blame one political brand or another for it.

Posted by: JamesK1 | January 7, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

So just to be clear, criticisms of Obama admin officials is unacceptable, yet criticisms of Bush admin is commendable.

Spare us the partisan hypocrisy. Are there any pundits left who are not such mindless hypocrites?

Posted by: bobmoses | January 7, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for your well reasoned article. When an incident takes place too often we are hearing the call for the head on one official or another. There are times when this is appropriate but these recent incidents give the Obama administration a reason to look at current procedures and make changes where appropriate. Every incident is not a firing offense nor is it a reason for politicians and commentators to be hysterical in public.
Thank you for your definition of faux accountability you couldn't have described this situation any better. At last someone with some good common sense.

Posted by: OhMy | January 7, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

I don't see incompetence I see a system so convoluted that all the stars have to be in the right place for the moon to peek through. I know the Republicans (especially the Cheney clan) will be complaining now that POTUS told our enemies too much (like they didn't know before?), that unless he hangs the jerk in the town square at high noon he's too soft on terrorism but I feel better knowing yes we got incredibly lucky but identifying definite problem areas and being able to correct them makes me feel more confident. I know there will be another attack, I fear it will be successful but I live in a free society and if I believe my government is trying, is making changes to adapt to stopping crazy people then I have to be OK with it or move to a jail cell in the middle of an empty field. We have been fortunate for a long time, Britain suffered through WWII and IRA bombings, many countries have gone through worse so it's time grown some backbone.

The judge in the Richard Reid case summed it up for me -- he was tried and convicted in criminal court and sentenced to life with no parole - he said Reid was a criminal, he wasn't a mastermind terrorist or soldier against America to be treated as an equal to any military but was a common criminal who deserved to be shut away for the rest of his life with no one to preach to, no one to praise him as a martyr, no one would see or think of him again. This stupid child is the same -- he felt alone, a woman turned him down so he wanted to be important and he was stupid enough to listen to men who I'm sure were laughing at his naivity and stupidity -- they got to shake up America either way -- if it worked they'd look important and scary, if it didn't they'd still look scary and the chickens in the US (Republicans) would be wetting their pants. Isn't it amazing how stupid so many people are?

Posted by: Lemon7221 | January 7, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the blogger who wrote, "Accountability starts at the top."

As a New Yorker, who witnessed 9/11 and, in its wake, the brilliant leadership of Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, I can tell you that when an appointees clearly recognizes where the buck stops, their departments will work, to say the least.

I'm not a Giuliani apologist, but that is beside the point. He pulled us New Yorkers through that horror, even as we were waring gas masks throughout Manhattan, parts of the Bronx, and Brooklyn.

I still recall an interview on the Letterman Show with the former fire chief. Letterman asked how Giuliani was able to locate him at the onset of a crisis following the disaster.

"I heard the mayor was looking for me. And God help you if the mayor's looking for you and can't find you."

Posted by: Farnaz1Mansouri1 | January 7, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

I've liked Ruth's columns in the past, but respectfully disagree with some of her conclusions in her current column.
As far as the X-mas bomber goes, it is not an easy thing to prevent some one from posing a threat on a plane given the millions of people flying with thousands of points of origin and destination. Whether the lapses that occurred raise to the level of
requiring firing someone at a departmental level seems like a judgement call by those who are well acquainted with the situation.
That would not be me or you, dear reader.
But I see the party-crashers incident as a different kind of event. First, this is a very circumscribed event with relatively few people to be admitted , unlike the millions to be admitted on planes. Secondly, admission to this party had the highest possible security as the potential target, the President, is among the highest national security concerns of the US.
What if one of the three party-crashers had actually wounded or killed the President ? Would you still have written about the human blood lust for faux-accountability ?
The job of the Secret Service is to protect the President. By any means.
This is not some high school party where some unruly pranksters have sneaked in. The head of the secret service told Congress recently that he has placed 3 secret service agents under suspension because of this incident. Obama would be fully justified in firing the head of the SS or others high in the chain to fix the problem. P.S. Not impressed by your sports study, or its applicability. Guess I've scolded enough.

Posted by: steveandjanereed1 | January 7, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for making it clear, Ruth: Accountability is for Republicans.

Posted by: grohlik | January 7, 2010 11:39 PM | Report abuse

The problem, of course, is that the Bush administration decided to cover up all weaknesses rather than engage in honest internal soul searching. The American people have thus lost all faith in their government to honestly examine itself and punish incompetence when it is discovered. The Obama administration seems much more willing to clean house after lapses, but it may take years, if not decades, to restore our faith in government to police itself. Such is the lingering damage done by terrible leadership.

Posted by: bertram2 | January 8, 2010 12:07 AM | Report abuse

Right on cue: Bush is accountable for it.

Posted by: jcp370 | January 8, 2010 1:19 AM | Report abuse

So much for accountability!! Mr. Obama and his administration are learning what? The same lesson over and over!Now we have multiple departments that failed thus no one is accountable this time. Next time we will also learn another lesson. I thought that Mr. Obama was a great student at Harvard, hasn'the learned enough there to see what most Americans are seeing? The buck stops at the top, however, in our form of government only one President resigned. I think that it is time for another one to do the same.

Posted by: maitami | January 8, 2010 1:19 AM | Report abuse

Marcus is spot on. We need to fix the holes in the Bush-implemented intell filtering apparatus.

Firing people just for show accomplishes nothing toward keeping us safer.

Besides, if that were the proper avenue to follow, HUNDREDS of people would have been fired right after 9/11. As far as I know, NOT ONE person lost their job because of the worst security failure in US history. Not one. Think about that the next time you see one these Republican clowns in Congress bravely and loudly calling for this head or the other.

Posted by: B2O2 | January 8, 2010 1:27 AM | Report abuse

After 9/11 -- no one was fired, but more telling, bush resisted to the bitter end even investigating WHY IT HAPPENED. He did not want to suffer political consequences no matter the risk to the nation. Same with Katrina. Same with everything that happened during the Doom Decade. At least this administration finds out why, and fixes it. bush and cheney would have probably wanted torture chambers in airports as a fix for such an incident.

Posted by: John1263 | January 8, 2010 5:31 AM | Report abuse

At what point in this administration are you people going to acknowledge that President Potatoe Head has had enough time in office to start being held accountable for the short comings of his appointees. Bush did not mandate that terrorists be tried in our civil court system; Eric Holder did. Liberals screamed bloody murder when the Patriot Act was implemented by Bush. Last time I checked it was still in place and doing what it was intended to do. 911 was the end result of the Clinton administrations lack of balls in going after Bin Laden when they had him. It's time for you to fixate on a new scape goat.

Posted by: nosuchluck | January 8, 2010 5:44 AM | Report abuse

Napolitano’s Failure

The primary systemic failure was the failure to assign specific responsibility to follow up on the known strategic and tactical terrorist threat.

Basically everyone’s job is nobody’s job.

To our pleasant surprise the President acknowledged this under “Breakdown of Accountability” in the report, and we can therefore discuss this PUBLICLY.

This was Napolitano’s responsibilty as Secretary of Homeland Security.

It would be bad enough if she just dropped the ball.

But Napolitano did worse.

Far worse.

Napolitano dismantled and short circuited the existing system she inherited which DID assign accountability.

Napolitano is systemically, inherently incompetent. This is neglect of the magnitude that can not be overlooked.

It is difficult as President to relieve incompetent persons, but a solemn responsibility.

American lives depend upon it.

Posted by: ProCounsel | January 8, 2010 7:46 AM | Report abuse

Geithner - How about some accountability for this fraud and thief. "Jan. 7 (Bloomberg) -- The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, then led by Timothy Geithner, told American International Group Inc. to withhold details from the public about the bailed-out insurer’s payments to banks during the depths of the financial crisis, e-mails between the company and its regulator show.

AIG said in a draft of a regulatory filing that the insurer paid banks, which included Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Societe Generale SA, 100 cents on the dollar for credit-default swaps they bought from the firm. The New York Fed crossed out the reference, according to the e-mails, and AIG excluded the language when the filing was made public on Dec. 24, 2008. The e-mails were obtained by Representative Darrell Issa, ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee."

Posted by: ignoranceisbliss | January 8, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

I respect Pres. Obama's approach on this situation. Yesterday he accepted total responsibility as any respectable president should.

It's a shame that no one accepted responsibility for the many failures during the bush admin - their mistakes were further reaching, more destructive and will be with us for much much longer - yet, not a hint of accountability.

Posted by: NotFooledTX | January 8, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

On the other hand, Janet Napolitano clearly misspoke when she said the system worked. But I forgive her because she has drunk the government kool-aid that says the government can provide airport security, a clearly impossible task.

Posted by: bruce18 | January 7, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse


You're wrong - if you listened to the complete statement by Ms. Napolitano - not the snipped version being punked by the dishonest pundits, you'd hear that she clearly said that "after the incident" things worked as they should.

Posted by: NotFooledTX | January 8, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

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