The Random Ruminations and Observations of a Curmudgeon

20 September 2005

Experience vs. Competence

The left wing blogosphere has grasped a position that I find untenable, although it is convenient.  They are confusing the question of competence with experience.  The Michael Brown case illustrates the misdirected focus.  Brown headed an agency that required administrative skill, organization and leadership.  To function properly the agency needed to be staffed with competent professionals.  In fact, the professional staff had withered and Brown was an incompetent administrator.  Being an emergency response professional had nothing to do with it.  James Lee Witt had run an emergency response agency in Arkansas.  He was no less a crony than Brown, but he was a competent crony.  

Few administrators of agencies are professionals in the field.  The EPA has seldom had an administrator that had qualifications in environmental sciences, although they may have had experience in administering an agency.

Another short example.  He may have been a political hack, but Tom Ridge had administrative experience as governor of Pennsylvania that appears to have been useful in the Department of Homeland Security.   Michael Chertoff had none.  When it came time to make a decision, Chertoff froze.  I think Ridge would have responded better.

The newest outrage is the proposed appointment of Julie Myers to a position at Immigration.  She is a political hack, to be sure.  Whether she is competent is unknown.   Her lack of immigration background may not be of concern, if her role at Immigration is largely administrative.  Nor is a background in immigration a guarantee of success.  What we do know is that most of these appointments are disasters.  The criteria for choosing these folks seems not to include potential for actually being able to do the job.  

George Bush has a history of appointing incompetent, or worse, individuals to high positions.   Those who are not fully incompetent, often quit in frustration.  As ideology overcomes function, professionals quit because their skills are not being used (cf. Treasury) or are being misused.  

In the last election those of us who supported Kerry had faith that he could succeed in one of the most difficult administrative jobs in the world, yet he had no experience as an administrator.  We had, as his opponent, a man who had demonstrated a lack of ability in that job, yet he had been governor of Texas and had paper credentials.  Bush’s ideological stance superseded his demonstrable incompetence (and arrogance and ________[Fill the blank(s)]).  

The problem is that many Bush appointees view their job as Beauty Queen positions.  Their responsibilities are to rule and attend photo ops.  They have never been held responsible for making their agencies functional from top to bottom.  They are not hired to get the work done.  Katrina (and 9/11 and the Iraqi reconstruction) revealed this.  It is tragic.