Better-functioning organizations

A recurring topic here is the potential for large and costly failures created by the dysfunctions of complex organizations (link). This perspective on organizations follows from the work of sociologists like Charles Perrow, Diane Vaughan, and Andrew Hopkins. But we can also ask the symmetrical question: is it possible for a medium- or large-scale organization …

Dysfunctions of Soviet economic ministries

In my book A New Social Ontology of Government (2020) I tried to provide an analytical inventory of the sources of "dysfunctions" in large organizations and government agencies. Why do agencies like FEMA or the NRC so often do such a poor job in carrying out their missions? The book proposed that we can better understand the …

Fire safety in urban China

A rapidly rising percentage of the Chinese population is living in high-rise apartment buildings in hundreds of cities around the country. There is concern, however, about the quality and effectiveness of fire-safety regulation and enforcement for these buildings (as well as factories, warehouses, ports, and other structures). This means that high-rise fires represent a growing …

Organizational evil

image: IG Farben headquarters A number of posts have confronted the historical realities of atrocities, genocide, and cruelty on a massive scale. The general question tying these discussions together has to do with individual human beings: "How could a normal human being with normal social emotions commit these atrocious acts?" And the individual question can …

A new social ontology of government

After several years of thinking about the nature of government as a network of organizations, I am happy to share the news that Palgrave Macmillan has published my short book, A New Social Ontology of Government: Consent, Coordination, and Authority (Foundations of Government and Public Administration). Thanks to Jos Raadschelders for proposing the book, and thanks …

High reliability organizations

Charles Perrow takes a particularly negative view of the possibility of safe management of high-risk technologies in Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. His summary of the Three Mile Island accident is illustrative: “The system caused the accident, not the operators” (12). Perrow’s account of TMI is chiefly an account of complex and tightly-coupled system processes, …

Why do regulatory organizations fail?

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 …

Organizations as open systems

Key to understanding the "ontology of government" is the empirical and theoretical challenge of understanding how organizations work. The activities of government encompass organizations across a wide range of scales, from the local office of the Department of Motor Vehicles (40 employees) to the Department of Defense (861,000 civilian employees). Having the best understanding possible …

O-rings and production pressure

Allan McDonald's Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster (2009) has given me a somewhat different understanding of the Challenger launch disaster than I've gained from other sources, including Diane Vaughan's excellent book The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. McDonald is a Morton Thiokol (MTI) insider who was present through …

Regulatory delegation at the FAA

Earlier posts have focused on the role of inadequate regulatory oversight as part of the tragedy of the Boeing 737 MAX (link, link). (Also of interest is an earlier discussion of the "quiet power" through which business achieves its goals in legislation and agency rules (link).) Reporting in the New York Times this week by …

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