Ebola may yet cause a widespread effect in America, though it’s not at all clear that it will. Prevention and treatment have seemed to be slow off the mark, expert opinion has been modified, and the country has teetered between its usual preoccupation with TV reality shows and overreaction to ‘real’ reality. (I know; the need for reiterative wording is a depressing comment.) Meanwhile those we elect to national political office are playing their well-practiced role of partisan noisemaking and righteous posturing.
It was hard for me to watch the piety parade in the Congressional hearing Thursday without thinking that the wrong people are, as news sources put it, being “grilled,” taking time from their important work to participate in political theater. Mind you, my distress has nothing to do with a deadly Dallas mistake nor overly optimistic comfort offered by the CDC. To be sure, errors were made; errors will be made; humans make errors. The very fact that a learning curve is steep is itself testimony that most mistakes happen early in a process.
Taking a hard look at them in the service of further improvement is in order. But a witch hunt within days of the beginning of Ebola as a domestic issue is due not to officials’ anxiety about national health, but to their concerns about an election less than three weeks away. Make no mistake, the hearing and the flood of political comments have little to do with good government, but with political candidates’ appeal to an unwise electorate, the millions duped into thinking their representatives are riding white horses to Americans’ rescue.
Some Democrats and more Republicans are shamefully questioning whether CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D. should be relieved of duty. That silliness would be laughable were it not so irresponsible. Do Americans know that Dr. Frieden is a skilled administrator, capable of heading a large and important organization? No, we do not, for we don’t have the necessary data on his performance nor, just as important, on the nature of delegation within which he works.
My experience with government as a governance theorist and consultant leads me to doubt the managerial integrity of the system under which he and other officials operate, regardless of who is in the White House. It tends to be sufficiently slipshod as to render almost impossible the separation of poor individual performance from incompetent system design, thereby rendering politics rather than job performance the arbiter of success.
But that is not the immediate issue now. Under the best of conditions, the public’s being unable to judge the director is not surprising. Given what we know, whether he is wonderful or marginal is not discernable and the fact that mistakes have been made is no guide. That a head should roll if everything hasn’t gone perfectly is simply a sophomoric conclusion. The upshot is that we are unable to make a reasoned judgment of Dr. Frieden’s ability during this predicament. The managerial system is too disorderly and the time has been far too short.
The relevant point, however, is that the pontificating elected officials and political candidates cannot make a reasoned assessment either. “Have you no decency?” needs to be asked again. The futility of forging ahead with judgments and innuendos despite their ignorance in a hastily called committee hearing demonstrates that it is not Dr. Frieden who should be grilled and possibly fired, but his inept judges.