Scientific explanations about the danger flying through volcano ash seem quiet clear:
Stewart John, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and former president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, explained that the ash can cause severe damage.
“This dust really is nasty stuff,” he told BBC News. “It’s extremely fine and if it gets into a jet engine, it blocks up all of the ventilation holes that bleed in cooling air.
“Jet engines operate at about 2,000C, and the metals can’t take that. The engine will just shut down.”
But how and why did European national bureaucrats decide to take such radical measures? Could it have been done differently? And could have there been other measures taken to avoid the subsequent chaos? These are all questions that come to my mind when I think of the inefficiencies of organisations that cost us billions (aggregated for the whole Europe), employed millions of people and claim to have the best experts working for them, i.e. national public administrations.
Among many other, I see mainly three big problems about how hierarchical bureaucratic organisations work, which have had a major impact on this unprecedented crisis: the paper method, the expert illusion and the hierarchical snowball.
1) The Paper Method: they work according to the “paper age” method, that is, you write information/data in a document, which is the material and full representation of a decision, you send this document to the people, bodies and organisations that “need” to get this decision, and then put it into a “drawer”, where it is kept there until it is properly disclosed (partly or fully). This method doesn’t facilitate sharing, collaboration and openness during the process. Quiet the opposite, it requires the officers to gather by themselves and then accumulate data/information (instead of sharing it), to compete to be the best and the first in taking them (instead of collaborating to solve a problem) and to be close about their decisions and the process of taking them (instead of being open about it).
This means that in one administration, officers have very limited knowledge about what others are doing in other administrations, and even inside their own (though they normally think they have more than enough). If a decision is taken, and it seems valid enough, others will follow without the appropriate information, for fear of getting it wrong and others getting it right. In a domino effect, one opaque, unfounded decision may provoke that others take it thinking it valid, for it is taken by their bureaucratic peers (= “experts”, more on this below). This is what happened with the swine flu. And I think, this is what is happening with the volcano ash.
2) The Expert Illusion: Max Weber saw in bureaucracies as a rational and efficient form of organization to give solutions to society problems, because of the position, power and functions it gives to the expert in a hierarchical structure. As legitimate heirs of the industrial era, bureaucracies are organised on specific and rigid functions based on the knowledge and expertise of individuals, which know a lot about a few things, but not much about many other. They claim to get the best or, at least, to train them to be the best people in what they need to be doing. The experts, on their side, are convinced they are the best or, at least, among the best, and they are given the political, legal and economic resources to prove it. The expert is isolated in his/her functional box, with just regular interaction with people around his/her own environment or with a limited pre-selected group of people or organizations from outside his/her own organization. Experts reproduce each others’ view of the world, and reinforce their illusion as the best in the field, in contrast to the ignorance of the citizens. This cuts completely sporadic, unexpected interaction, and stops any possibility for serendipity of information. As if they were in a bunker, bureaucrats only go outside when they want to, or they think the need to, to get something, in a pre-planned, rational way. If they need to go outside, they always will go to get the information from the already established “authorities” e.g. universities, and other bureaucratically organised institutions.
Therefore, once an analysis is made, they will rarely change it if it has been based on their expertise or those with the authority to advise them. The rigidity of their position does allow for little doubt, qualifying information that is very different from their own as crazy, impossible, illogical. They basically don’t listen to it, in fact they cannot listen to it, because there is too much information and, logically, they need to filter it according to their standards.
What about the volcano ash then? Obviously, I wouldn’t claim here that it is not dangerous to fly through a volcano ash cloud, or any other scientific claim behind the decision to cancel flights. But who says that the decision to close down all flights, all airports, one country after the other was the best decision? How did this scientific evidence (which some claim incomplete and not properly based on facts (Matthias Ruete, the European Commission’s director-general of transport, has said that “the science behind the model we are running at the moment is based on certain assumptions where we do not have clear scientific evidence.” )) got translated into that decision? An “expert” or a bunch of “experts” in a bureaucratic administration gets this evidence, decides upon it according to his/her expertise, and, boom!, European skies are closed down.
3) The Hierarchical Snowball: one of the most characteristic features of a bureaucracy is its hierarchical organization. A public official is given a position in the structure, which has attached authority to take certain level of decisions, and give orders to those below. Bosses instruct, subordinates execute. This means that very rarely a subordinate will challenge the decision of his/her boss. If he or she wants to do it, it will have to use pre-configured procedures or, alternatively, do it subtly, avoiding as much as possible direct confrontation with the superior. Generally, if the boss has decided something, it will go down the chain of command quiet rapidly. A decision taken rapidly by the boss can, therefore, have great effects on the whole organization in a very short period of time. Once the decision is taken, its suitability is not questioned anymore. Assessment will be made a posteriori, again following pre-determined, rigid and rational methods.
In the Ashgate, this, together with the other two reasons, means that we need just one single person, or a very reduced group of people, in the UK to decide to close down the skies for the whole Europe to do the same. Subordinates will follow, bosses in other administrations will follow, and then subordinates will follow again. Allowing no flexibility in or challenge of the decision. They will always be, however, a justification: “safety is our prime concern”, in this case.
Could it have been done differently? I believe so. If we would have had public problem-solving structures based on the bit-method, open expertise and networks, I think the decision would have had at least three differences:
1. Flexibility: allowing adaptation of the decision according to the actual situation in which the affected are actually in. For example, each airport could have arranged flights according to the particular situation in which it is in. Instead of having “all national airports” closed at once – and, therefore, all Europe closed at once.
2. Real-time alternatives: designing options to the consequences caused by the decision. For example, the decision to ground planes could have been accompanied with measures to get the people at the airports appropriate alternatives, adapted to their specific needs. Instead, because it was the administration controlling the air traffic, together with, perhaps, a couple more administrations, taking the decision, in the way I explained above, they would have had difficulties in thinking of alternatives that do not concern their area of expertise (their functions).
3. Distributed reaction: a decision taken openly in a distributive way would, I believe, have had effect in a more granular way, that is, people could have reacted gradually according to when and where the decision is taken. The decision-making structures are thinking to closed down an airport, passengers that need to fly from that airport are properly informed beforehand that it might be closed, and offered alternatives, while in other airports similar processes are happening at different times, gradually, adapted to their specific situation. The information is spread virally and represented in a more dynamic, interactive and full form, not just in a “paper-style” document, as a decision already taken, based on semi-obscured facts, through an opaque process of decision-making that closes down nearly the skies of the whole Europe for days. Affecting millions of people.
IMHO, bureaucratic structures are not adapted to the complex world we live in. A network world.