Friday, April 24, 2020

Too Many Plans

This will make it two posts today about topics I do not understand. This time, it’s an important and comprehensive article by one Judge Glock, who is, as best I can tell, neither a judge nor a glock. It analyzes the federal government response to the coronavirus, and asks whether, all things considered, why we were unprepared and even disorganized.

While we all know well that China was lying about the virus, we also know that other countries around the world read between the lines of the Chinese and WHO announcements and drew different conclusions. Moreover, if we believe that more accurate information would have saved us by eliciting a better policy response, we ought to have some understanding of how our government organized itself to fight the pandemic.

And, by the by, we ought also to ask ourselves whether it would have been feasible for the government to impose social distancing at a time when there were precious few cases of the virus. And thus, when the American people might not have been quite so apt to comply.

Anyway, Glock opens with this sobering note, as a response to those who said that the government didn’t have a plan. In truth, it had too many plans, with too many bureaucrats, with lines of authority ill-defined, when they were defined at all:

The truth is the government had a plan. Most commentators forgot that just six months before the current outbreak, Congress passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act of 2019, which offered funds and planning authority for just such a crisis as we now face.[2] This act was a reauthorization and an extension of half a dozen similar acts passed over the previous two decades, which acts were themselves extended in countless congressional spending bills, all of which resulted in countless plans.

By the time the virus broke on American shores, the problem was not that the United States didn’t have a single plan for an international pandemic. The problem was it had dozens of plans, totaling thousands of pages, issued by different agencies and by different administrations, apparently with little thought to how they would be combined or who would implement them. In the process of mandating all of these plans, the government had also created an array of competing and often contradictory authorities in different bureaucracies, which often worked at cross-purposes.

I emphasize that at a time when everyone is inveighing non-stop about the horrors of authoritarian governance, the American government can barely function, because it lacks proper lines of authority:

The failure of the United States government to respond to the coronavirus was not a failure of foresight. It was a failure to create a coherent strategy and to provide clear lines of authority to implement it. To prepare for the next pandemic, we need to end our current proliferation of planning mandates and overlapping agency authorities (such as that of the Assistant Secretary for Response and Preparedness), strengthen the pandemic response ability of one agency (preferably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and reform our current National Emergency Act to allow clear delegation of emergency power. Only by examining our current failures and rectifying them, most importantly, by combining authority, responsibility, and accountability in the right hands, can we make sure that our next Pandemic Preparedness Act is not an embarrassment to its name.

It was all chaos, all the way down:

Because of the piles of unreadable PDFs, nobody can be held responsible to any of them, and different departments of government, with their own, often-contradictory plans, continue to work at cross-purposes. When Politico noted that the Trump administration was not following the National Security Council’s Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Infectious Disease, the administration responded that they weren’t working with that plan anymore, but with some combination of the Biological Incident Annex to the National Response Framework, the Biodefense Strategy, and something called the Pandemic Crisis Action Plan (or PanCAP), whose provenance and even existence outside of this discussion I have not been able to discover.[20] Inevitably, the Trump administration has now written its own hundred-plus page plan specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic. After decades of pandemic planning for just such a crisis, only one previous plan is even referenced in it.[21]

In the absence of true lines of authority, we got confusion and disorganization:

To summarize, the acronyms of those agencies that are supposed to organize a response to a communicable disease crisis include, but are not limited to, the ASPR, CDC, DGMQ, NCEZID, USSG, HHS, FEMA, FDA, NIAID, DOD, DHS, NSC, CTF, and associated sub-agencies and divisions and offices. Inside these agencies, there are dozens of intelligent and accomplished individuals, often from bipartisan or civil service backgrounds, who are supposed to lead in a crisis. The problem is that those people have no clear lines of authority about who is supposed to coordinate them or be in charge, and no clear plan to follow even if such authority were provided.


Sam L. said...

Too many "agencies" and, likely, too much backside covering, and too much "mine, mine, mine!" in those agencies working at cross-purposes and ideas. Mr. Trump should look into streamlining these agencies, which will rile up the Dems who will want MORE agencies to spend our money.

Fredrick said...

"In the absence of true lines of authority..."

The Constitution makes the President the head of all the bits and pieces of the Executive Branch, including all those filled with 'career professionals' and members of the 'resistance. That latter don't like what he's doing at all.

David Foster said...

How many of our Presidents have had any real interest in executive management--making organizations work better, simplifying structure, upgrading performance--let alone any actual *talent* in the field?

Certainly not Barack Obama, the quintessential word person. Bill Clinton, maybe a little better--a policy wonk, but I don't think really all that interested in how one makes the policies work. Lyndon Johnson, according to Amity Shlaes' new book, not interested in such things at all. Bush the Elder, probably yes; Bush the Younger, somewhere in the middle. JFK, I think interested but not all that good at it. Nixon, not sure.

Trump is both interested in executive management and pretty good at it, judging by his performance in the last couple of months. Some bad mis-steps, but has gotten more done than most of our other Presidents would have been able to.

UbuMaccabee said...

Agreed, David. No real interest in either understanding, restraining, or streamlining anything up until Trump. It drives him crazy. And our media defends all of it and urges more.