Every agency is two-faced at some point.
"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Not only have these words come to symbolize the dysfunctional nature of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, but they are destined to become the catchphrase for future failures. Katrina exposed what Swedish economics professor Nils Brunsson calls "organizational hypocrisy" at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Homeland Security Department.
Organizational hypocrisy exists in every organization. It occurs whenever decisions and actions are inconsistent or conflict with previously stated ideals, values or performance measures.
This inconsistency is not necessarily bad, Brunsson argues. Being hypocritical might be the only way organizations can operate, he says, given the often contradictory demands they face. Some are even forced into institutionalized hypocrisy. For instance, the Federal Aviation Administration must address daily the dueling legal mandates of promoting air travel and keeping its passengers safe and secure. Unfortunately, FAA's actions in meeting both mandates have earned it the Tombstone Agency moniker, because FAA rules to increase safety only seem to emerge after a deadly airplane crash.
Organizational hypocrisy comes in two flavors. External hypocrisy involves how credible an organization is perceived to be by the public in meeting its stated mission. Internal hypocrisy is how an organization is perceived by its own employees.
Federal employees encounter large and small examples of their organizations' internal hypocrisy every day. Take the most recent job advertisement for your organization. Does it realistically depict the work environment, or one that is scarcely recognizable? As you read it, did you say to yourself, "If people only knew what really went on here"? Would anyone want to work for your organization if the job ad told the whole truth?
What about when management gives that old pep talk about how good the organization is and how, together, we can make our new vision of the organization come true? Would you rather hear them say they don't have a clue what the vision is or how to get there?
Most private and public sector organizations operate at a Stage 1 level of mild or healthy hypocrisy. This is where the reality gap between the public image and what is actually happening inside its private sphere is fairly narrow. Occasionally, some event causing an inconsistency of word and deed widens the organizational hypocrisy gap, or OHG. This is Stage 2, when the OHG becomes wide enough that employees start questioning the judgment of senior decision-makers. It often portends the start of something more serious.
Consider the recent 25 percent reduction to NASA's space science research and analysis budget, and the 50 percent slash in its astrobiology budget in particular. Senior managers have termed these cuts "temporary speed bumps" that will defer, not forever cancel, affected projects. They insist that these cuts still allow a "vigorous program of astrobiology research and some technology development." NASA's astrobiology employees and the academic community aren't buying into management's version of reality. They don't believe the cuts are temporary, and they do not believe that a vigorous, effective astrobiology program will exist once the cuts take effect.
What's more, employees are questioning how NASA is going to land astronauts on Mars if the research needed to take them there isn't performed. Top managers have characterized such criticism as "a hysterical reaction." It will be interesting to see whether they can keep this burgeoning organizational hypocrisy gap from widening any further, and even more important, keep it from spreading to other parts of NASA.
If a moderate OHG becomes institutionalized, then Stage 3, severe organizational hypocrisy, arises. Here, the organization suffers from a full bout of cognitive dissonance, or Dilbertism, the condition of the famed cartoon character who toils in the shadow of an inept boss. At this point, management descriptions of reality are at odds with the working-level view. Talk, decision and action become disconnected. Employees start wondering aloud what planet senior managers live on, healthy skepticism turns into destructive cynicism, morale sinks to the basement and an organizational meltdown becomes a distinct possibility.
While an organization with a wide internal hypocrisy gap might not be operationally effective, it can muddle through for a long time, especially in the public sector. Since top executives control the public face of the organization, they quite easily can paper over the OHG, or if it becomes inadvertently exposed, blame the problem on disgruntled employees.
That strategy is viable until an event happens outside management's control. A dysfunctional organization cannot perform its mission in the face of an unexpected crisis. In the aftermath, its performance is investigated, exposing the internal organizational hypocrisy. Poor performance also triggers deep public mistrust in the organization, which creates a condition of external organizational hypocrisy.
In the case of Katrina, the juxtaposition of President Bush's statement of support for the head of FEMA and televised coverage of the agency's performance were so out of sync that the damage not only to FEMA but the administration's credibility was devastating.
Once an agency's organizational hypocrisy is laid bare, it is impossible to effectively reduce it. Even honest attempts to set things right will be seen in a cynical light. Just ask New Orleans residents how they felt when DHS announced its plan to hire 1,500 additional people at FEMA to prepare for future disasters. How many would label this a publicity stunt? Or ask FEMA employees, who have seen their once respected organization systematically hollowed out over the past several years. Do you think they believe DHS officials can put FEMA on the return path to the high-performance days of the late 1990s? The time it took to find an emergency management professional willing to take the job as head of FEMA indicates that no one outside the organization believes it can make a comeback.
Organizational hypocrisy is a fact. The trick is to keep it to a minimum by working aggressively to keep the OHG narrow. Once the gap begins to grow, it is devilishly hard to close.