Why is Charles Perrow a pessimist about government regulation?
Perrow is a leading researcher in the sociology of organizations, and he is a singular expert on accidents and failures. Several of his books are classics in their field — Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters, Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism. So why is he so gloomy about the ability of governmental organizations to protect the public from large failures and disasters of various kinds — hurricanes, floods, chemical plant fires, software failures, terrorism? He is not a relentless critic of organizations such as the EPA, the Department of Justice, or the Food and Drug Administration, but his assessment of their capacity for success is dismal.
We should not expect too much of organizations, but the DHS is extreme in its dysfunctions. As with all organizations, the DHS has been used by its masters and outsiders for purposes that are beyond its mandate, and the usage of the DHS has been extreme. One major user of the DHS is Congress. While Congress is the arm of the government that is closest to the people, it is also the one that is most influenced by corporations and local interest groups that do not have the interests of the larger community in mind. (The Next Catastrophe, kl 205)
I don’t think that Perrow’s views derive from the general skeptical view that organizations never succeed in accomplishing the functions we assign to them — hospitals, police departments, labor unions, universities, public health departments. And in fact his important book Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay provided a constructive description of the field of organizational studies when it appeared in 1972 and was updated in 2014 (link).)
Instead, there seem to be particular reasons why large governmental organizations designed to protect the public are likely to fail, in Perrow’s assessment. It is organizations that are designed to regulate risky activities and those that are charged to create prudent longterm plans for the future that seem particularly vulnerable, in his account. So what are those reasons for failure in these kinds of organizations?
FEMA is faulted, for example, because of its failure to adequately plan for and provide emergency relief to the people of New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf region from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Poor planning, incompetent executives at the top, politicized directions coming from the White House, poor coordination across sub-units, and poor internal controls eventually resulted in a historic failure. These are fairly routine organizational failures that could happen within the United Parcel Service corporate headquarters as easily as Washington.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is faulted for its oversight of safety in nuclear plants, including Three Mile Island, Davis-Besse, and Shoreham. Key organizational faults include regulatory capture by owners and the nuclear industry, excessive dependence on specific key legislators, commissioners who are politically beholden, and insufficient personnel to carry out intensive inspection regimes.
Perrow’s key ideas about failures in the industrial systems themselves seem not to be central in his negative assessment of government regulatory organizations. The features of “complex systems” and “tightly coupled processes” that are so central to his theory of normal accidents in industrial systems like nuclear power plants play only incidental roles in his analysis of regulatory failure. Agencies are neither complex nor tightly coupled in the way a petroleum processing plant is. In fact, an outside observer might hypothesize that a somewhat more tightly coupled system in the NRC or the EPA (a more direct connection among the scientists, engineering experts, inspectors, and commissioners) might actually improve performance.
Instead, his analysis of regulatory failure depends on a different set of axes: interests, influence, and power. Regulatory agencies fail, in Perrow’s accounts, when their top administrators have bureaucratic interests and dependencies that diverge from the mission of safety, when powerful outsiders and owners have the capacity to influence rules, policies, and implementation, and when political and economic power is deployed to protect the interests of powerful actors. (All these defects are apparent in Trump administration appointments to federal agencies with regulatory responsibilities.)
Interestingly, these factors have also played a central role in Perrow’s sociological thinking about the emergence of the twentieth-century corporation; he views corporations as vehicles for the concentration of power:
Our economic organizations — business and industry — concentrate wealth and power; socialize employees and customers alike to meet their needs; and pass off to the rest of society the cost of their pollution, crowding, accidents, and encouragement of destructive life styles. In the vaunted “free market” economy of the United States, regulation of business and industry to prevent or mitigate this market failure is relatively ineffective, as compared to that enacted by other industrialized countries. (Organizing America, 1-2)
So the primary foundation of Perrow’s assessment of the linked of organizational failure when it comes to government regulation derives from the role that economic and political power plays in deforming the operations of major government organizations to serve the interests of the powerful. Regulatory agencies are “captured” by the powerful industries they are supposed to oversee, whether through influence on the executive branch or through merciless lobbying of the legislative branch. Commissioners are often very sympathetic to the business needs of the sector they regulate, and strive to avoid “undue regulatory burden”.
This leads us to a fascinating question: is there a powerful constituency for safety that could be a counterweight to corporate power and a bulwark for honest, scientifically guided regulatory regimes? Is a more level playing field between economic interests and the public’s interests in effective safety regulation possible?
We may want to invoke the public at large, and it is true that public opinion sometimes effectively demands government intervention for safety. But the public is generally limited in several important ways. Only a small set of issues manage to become salient for the public. Further, issues only remain salient for a limited period of time. And the salience of an issue is often geographically and demographically bounded. There was intense opposition to the Shoreham nuclear plant siting decision on Long Island, but the public in Chicago and Dallas did not mobilize around the issue. Sometimes vocal public opinion prevails, but much more common is the scenario where public interest wanes and profit-motivated corporate interests persists. (Pepper Culpepper lays out the logic of salience and unequal power between a diffuse public and a concentrated corporate interest in Quiet Politics and Business Power: Corporate Control in Europe and Japan.)
Other pertinent voices for safety are public interest organizations — the Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends of the Earth, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Organizations like these have succeeded in creating a national base of support, they have drawn resources in support of their efforts, and they have a greater organizational capacity to persist over an extended period of time. (In another field of advocacy, organizations like Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have succeeded in maintaining organizational focus on the dangers of hate-based movements.) So public interest organizations sometimes have the capacity and staying power to advocate for stronger regulation.
Investigative journalism and a free press are also highly relevant in exposing regulatory failures and enhancing performance of safety organizations. The New York Times and Washington Post coverage of the FAA’s role in certification of the 737 Max will almost certainly lead to improvements in this area of aircraft safety. (Significantly, when I made this statement concerning the link between industrial safety in China and a free press, I was told that “this is a sensitive subject in China.”)
(These examples are drawn from the national level of government. Sometimes local government — e.g. police departments and zoning boards — are captured as well, when organized crime “firms” and land developers are able to distort regulations and enforcement in their favor. But it may be that organizations at this level of government are a bit more visible to their publics, and therefore somewhat less likely to bend to the dictates of powerful local interests. Jessica Troundstine addresses these kinds of issues in Political Monopolies in American Cities: The Rise and Fall of Bosses and Reformers (link).