Thursday, August 30, 2007


The "train wreck" method of running a government, and what the Superferry might do next

by Larry Geller

Origins of the blame game

It is said the Prussian army invented the organization chart. Knowing who was in charge of something would assure that when something went wrong, blame could be quickly and accurately fixed on the person in charge of it. The principle is not old because most of the world produced its goods for eons in little farms or cottages. You don't need an organization chart for a mom-and-pop operation. There is no "management" to chart. But an army could use one, so the Prussians either invented it or at least introduced it to the world. It worked. They could find someone "responsible" quickly, because their chart showed who was in charge of what.

Two Western Railroad passenger trains collided somewhere between Massachusetts and Albany, New York in 1841, and fortunately, they had a handy Prussian-style organization chart. So they could quickly say who was responsible. We then had a name for it: the train wreck method of management. Those responsible should be found and fired. Outsiders saw that the company was taking action. And surviving employees were motivated to keep their projects on track, so to speak. We still do that; after a train wreck, we find who is responsible, and fix the blame on that person. And we can fry that person in oil, no one will object.

Applying Prussian army learning to the Superferry situation

It doesn't take a train to have a train wreck. Here in Hawaii the finger of blame is spinning around since the Superferry was challenged successfully by protesters in the waters off Kauai. The ferry was there because they started early in order to defy a judge who banned the boat from Maui. The judge acted because there was a questionable exemption from state law. The exemption was questionably granted by.... and so the finger spins.

Fixing blame is a very big thing, ranking right up there with revenge, retaliation and jealousy as motivators in Hawaii government. But many of us are eager enough to join in the game. I admit I feel like pointing the finger myself.

I find it interesting how politicians, activists, newspapers, letters to the editor, bloggers and blog comments are all over the map on this. That's actually great for discussion and can help us decide what's the best thing to do. It also reveals the possible thought processes of different institutions and individuals, if you're a student of such things. We'd never get much insight into what makes the state Department of Transportation tick, for example, if it weren't for something like this. We can step back and take a bit of a meta view, because these different groups have been squeezed, and in their squealing there is information to be gathered.

Let's start with ferry management (conveniently, they do have an organization chart, so why not). Can you imagine, in Hawaii, defying the courts and the people by loading up the Superferry with $5 passengers and setting sail early? John Garibaldi, Hawaii Superferry CEO, is said to be a local guy, so he should have known better. So we learn something about attitude. We learn what we can expect in the future. Maybe we can predict what might happen to interisland ferry fares, given how this company seems to feel about local people.

They'd rather have the Coast Guard round up the protesters. Guantanamo is probably not good enough for those tree huggers. Never mind that for every protester in the water there are hundreds cheering what they are doing.  Again, I don't have to argue who is right, I'm just looking at how they handle this.

Let's look at the protesters, perhaps those who have spoken the loudest. It is easy to sit here and write a blog. It's easy to write an editorial or a letter to the editor. It takes guts to shout down a superferry from the water directly in front of it. Again, you may have your views, but analyze the protester's position. They clearly are not speaking for themselves alone. There are too many for blame to be fixed on them as individuals. In fact, their act is strongly in accord with an American tradition of civil disobedience in the face of perceived injustice. We can conclude that there are a large number of people who have strong objections, even at this late date, to the way this ferry thing is being done. They were not heard before, but by golly, they have our attention now.

[I'm reminded of a number of small recreational boaters who took advantage of great sailing weather to practice in the waters off of Pier 29 a couple of years ago. It happened that the Full Means II, the ship whose captain was allegedly killed by the ship's cook after mistreating the crew, was trying to escape from Hawaii and avoid repatriating the crew. Too bad for the ship's owners, it's not allowed to crash into recreational sailors just because you're in a hurry to get your ship out of port. So attorneys had time to prepare papers and have the ship arrested.]

The Honolulu Advertiser editors complain about the planning process but won't look at both sides of the issue. This is fine, we expect to find opinions on the editorial page. Again, without agreeing or disagreeing with them, step back and analyze what position they took. Is it possible that they might be influenced by the thought of ad revenue? Who knows. The editorial begins:

You would think the Hawai'i Supreme Court had ample time to voice its opinion on the Hawai'i Superferry.

Actually, the court acted with lightning speed. Usually one could die waiting for a decision. They acted as soon as the matter was brought before them.

The editorial identifies a serious lack of planning. Since letting the ferry avoid doing an environmental study was very much a part of the state's plan, I'm puzzled at why an editorial finger is not pointed in that direction. But nevermind, the finger is still spinning, and we can learn something about newspaper thought processes from this and other editorials.

Sen. Gary Hooser, in an op-ed in today's Advertiser, spotlighted the failure of the DOT and the Lingle administration to require the environmental impact statement in the first place. He also chastises the administration and the ferry management for accelerating the sailing schedule.

The message from the fifth floor of the State Capitol to Hawai'i residents is clear: The interest of a single big business takes precedence over the interests of the environment, the law and the people.

Reading the entire article, it's clear that Sen. Hooser favors cooperation between different parts of the government, and that he is comfortable showing them how they could have served the people by acting differently: 

A majority of Neighbor Island senators introduced legislation in the recent session and the Senate passed out a bill offering a compromise that would have required an environmental impact statement while allowing for the commencement of operations for the Superferry.

Instead of accepting a win-win solution that would have served both the Superferry and Hawai'i's fragile environment, the DOT and the Hawaii Superferry have steadfastly refused all requests and all offers of compromise, choosing instead the arrogance of the steamroller approach. After all, they had been able to block all attempts by the Legislature, they had the full support of the governor, and the benefit of hundreds of millions of dollars invested by a politically powerful and influential board of directors.

Without judging the merits of Sen. Hooser's points, we can learn quite a bit about his leadership qualities. To my ears, the article shouts out that were he governor, he might have exercised a different form of leadership. It helps to know that he has been consistent over time. I have certainly not read everything in print on the ferry issue, but Sen. Hooser is the first I have seen to point out that lawsuits will be costly (and who pays them? Do they come out of Lingle's salary? No, we pay the settlements out of our taxes).

It did not have to be this way. If the Lingle administration had from the beginning put the interests of the public, the law and the environment ahead of the interests of the Hawaii Superferry, we would not be having this discussion.

This comment is not made in isolation. In different contexts it can be leveled at an administration that withholds money from social services, from pedestrian safety, and yet supports the interests of big business.

Ok, I mentioned Governor Lingle. What can we learn from her statements? Find one, first. Maybe I and Google have overlooked something. As I type this, there is one just out–KHNL: Governor Lingle Requests Suspension on Superferry. Read it yourself, it's short. What can be learned? Staying on the sidelines any longer would make her look bad. But up to that point, she was very willing to lay low. In the KHNL article she reiterates that she feels the state made all the right decisions.

Again, whether or not you agree, what can be learned? Is this an example of leadership, taking the helm and steering the ship of state in the right direction (sorry, sorry)? In fact, is any leadership at all demonstrated by her silence and this short statement?

I know that readers may not agree with my analyses. But it's an interesting exercise to read between the lines, or to try to deduce what a statement means or shows beyond what it says. In an age where politicians lie easily, we all do this to some extent already. Each of us may come away with different views. That's fine. Applying critical thinking (that is, not swallowing what we are told whole cloth) does not mean we will agree. But I think we will learn a lot.

Superferry as part of a system of frames

We must, in my view, look critically at the frames that our government is imposing on our conversations. This is how we are made to meekly go along with transit plans, housing shortages, overdevelopment, loss of beach access, increased taxes, control over women's reproductive choices, immigration "reform," and so on.

Reading between the lines is a first step to understanding the process. Go beyond the words someone is using. Look at the entire context. They may be lying, but they can't fool you if you are not depending on their words to convey all of the meaning.

The second is to understand how issues are presented to us, how they are framed. Perhaps the most common frame people are aware of is the set of words associated with "pro-choice" and "pro-life."

A third step might be to accept what is good and resist the rest.

What frames does the Superferry appear in? Something around privatization. Big business trumps local needs. Government is above the law. In each of these (and there are probably more), other components make up the frame as well. The objective is always to control public dialogue. If we read between the lines habitually, we won't be taken in. 

As to the Superferry, I suggest they park it and apply for a liquor license. I understand from speaking with someone who took a $5 trip that it's a pleasant place to spend time, and it comes equipped with its own parking lot. What a great venue for musical or club style events. Or for a nautical themed restaurant.

Update: Some readers suggested names. I think that's a great idea but it needs more work. "Club Nowhere Now."  "Club See Worthy."


Thank you for your very interesting insights, Doug.

Having dealt with officials in the Lingle administration, I observed that they are concerned primarily with "appearances" and that is why Lenny Klompus and Russel Pang play an important part of her daily life. As much as I detested Governor Cayetano's personality, it has been my observation that he could care less about appearances and made an effort to search for the motives and the truth in issues brought before him. Governor Lingle's denial of error on the part of her staff is bizarre - what is that woman smoking? But the script has been written for her and she is just playing the role assigned to her by her spin doctors. I am disappointed in her leadership skills and her failure to be accountable for mistakes in her administrations. These behaviors on her part suggest to me her compass is not grounded in ethics or morality, but rather, in shallow public perception. After her lame duck term, she will probably seek a Senate seat on Capitol Hill, definitely without my vote.

Aloha Larry - sorry for addressing you as "Doug." I was having a "senior" momemnt after reading through many blogs. Have a nice weekend.

The "real Doug" here:

Thanks for a very thoughtful post, Larry. :)

To be mistaken for Doug is not all bad...

I agree with you about "appearances" (and the rest of your fine comment). Lingle shares much with Bush. "Appearances," incompetence, denial of errors, arrogance, etc. No need to go into it here in Comments, but it perhaps fits with wanting higher office.

Sadly, we live in a world where the "appearances" make the news and so are remembered.

But Google knows, it will find these and other comments in the future if anyone cares to do the research. Maybe the next generation will not be so easily taken in.

Also, it would take quality leadership to rebuild the Republican Party in Hawaii. And although I'm a Democrat, I think we need some kind of opposition whether or not I agree with it usually. But just this week another Republican defected, further shrinking their ranks.

When it comes time for Lingle to move onward and perhaps upward, will there be anyone left (besides Klompus, Kitty and the usual suspects) to support her?

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