Tilting at Windmills

March/April 2012 Quality, control

By Charles Peters

It turns out that the terrible train collision in China last year was caused by a failed signal mechanism. It had not been properly tested because the leader of the responsible agency had focused on the “speed of the railway project construction” at the expense of safety, according to the Wall Street Journal’s report on the investigation of the accident by the Chinese government.

This is a classic problem with hardcharging administrators. Consider those Pentagon officials who bought more than ninety F-35s when only 20 percent of the testing had been completed, resulting in a nearly 100 percent cost overrun.

The obvious answer to this problem—avoiding hard chargers—happens to be the wrong answer. To get great things done, especially in large bureaucracies, hard-charging leadership is essential. Just as important as having the necessary drive, however, is having a leader who is determined to find out what’s going wrong and to fix it. Unfortunately, when the troops are pushing hard to meet a goal, they are often tempted to take dangerous shortcuts. If the leader doesn’t find out in time to correct the mistakes, bad things—like train collisions—happen.

Ryan Cooper’s article about the Peace Corps in the current issue provides another excellent illustration of this point. And incidentally, it shows that such a leader can actually exist. He did, in the person of Sargent Shriver.

Cooper makes another important point that I want to explain because it is so little understood. Even good agencies like the Peace Corps can do bad things and try to cover them up. That’s why they need to provide for self-criticism like the original evaluators supplied for the Peace Corps. And that’s also why the good guys can’t receive a free pass from the media or from official oversight agencies like the Office of Management and Budget and the Government Accountability Office.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.