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Thursday, March 02, 2006

With Accountability for Some and Justice for None

In the federal community – that is the community of career civil servants – the buzz is all about reforming the Civil Service. The emphasis is on demanding accountability from low-level federal workers and linking their pay raises and promotions to performance measures to achieve that accountability. All in all, not bad reforms if done properly. The question, though, is how to set up a system that spells out clear standards of performance and then measures workers fairly for meeting them? One of the major agencies spearheading the reforms, the Department of Homeland Security, is having their own problems with the performance and accountability of its own top officials.

Indeed if the chief is supposed to lead by example, these reforms are in deep trouble across the federal government. From Katrina to the mining disaster at Sago, accountability standards have flown out the door as the senior most executives moved aggressively to avoid responsibility for their own poor performance.

As this article in today’s New York Times shows, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency set up to ensure that safety standards are met at U.S. mines, has been more interested in promoting cooperative relations with mine owners than with protecting workers. Better relationships with the operators trumped worker safety as federal regulators overlooked safety violations and permitted mine operators to pay the lowest amounts allowable for fines, often as low as $460, which is one thousandth of 1 percent of the $110 million profit reported by the owners of the Sago Mine where 12 workers died in an explosion.

In fact, fines are so low that they are considered a cost of doing business. And in some cases, the fines, inexpensive as they are, were never even in collected. Here’s the money quote:
" 'The agency keeps talking about issuing more fines, but it doesn't matter much,' said Bruce Dial, a former inspector for the mine safety agency. 'The number of citations means nothing when the citations are small, negotiable and most often uncollected.' "
Furthermore, while the Mine Safety and Health Administration is failing to protect American miners, the Department of Homeland Security is apparently failing to protect everybody else.

This new video transcript, described in today’s New York Times, shows clueless top federal and state officials were praising each other’s performance just hours before the levees in New Orleans were breached last August.

The video transcript also helps vindicate Michael Brown, the FEMA director who, it turns out, took the heat for his boss Michael Chertoff’s inattention to the true dimensions of the disaster. And it certainly gives credibility to Brown’s claim that he had been warning Chertoff for 3 years that budget cuts and bureaucracy were hurting FEMA’s ability to respond to disasters.

But the real level of disengagement by top Bush Administration officials first came to light in this February 9, New York Times article which showed that FEMA official, Marty Bohamonde, reported the true extent of the disaster, including the breaching of the levees and the flooding, directly to Chertoff’s office while Brown was also reporting it to an equally disengaged White House.
The level of inattentiveness to this dire situation even disturbed some of Bush's staunchest supporters in Congress. Here's the money quote:
"But the seriousness of the situation did not register at the highest levels of the Administration. Representative Thomas M. Davis III, Republican of Virginia, chairman of the special House committee investigating the hurricane response, said the only government agency that performed well was the National Weather Service, which correctly predicted the force of the storm. 'But no one heeded the message,' he said.

'The president is still at his ranch, the vice president is still fly-fishing in Wyoming, the president's chief of staff is in Maine,' Mr. Davis said. 'In retrospect, don't you think it would have been better to pull together? They should have had better leadership. It is disengagement.' "
Yet in a true example of crap rolling downhill, Michael Brown was the one fired for the government’s poor performance in this disaster. Everybody above him remains unscathed by their failures and unwilling to even admit any responsibility for failure to act.

From bureaucratic bungling to inadequate funding, FEMA took a hit that can only be blamed on the shortsightedness of a disengaged and incompetent administration more intent on protecting its friends than measuring their performance by the same standards it demands from lower level workers. Meanwhile the Mine Safety and Health Administration is more interested in winning friends and influencing big Republican donors who happen to own mining companies in West Virginia than in protecting worker safety as they are tasked to do. Oh, and the reason for FEMA's inadequate funding is probably due to the federal government's across the board budget cuts to pay for the burgeoning deficits – all because big millionaire Republican donors need their tax cuts more than Americans need a functioning, adequately funded government to protect them.

Yeah, cronyism doesn’t get any better than this.

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