Sunday, August 06, 2006

Reengineering the Army Corps

This graphic is from an October 2003 report on reorganizing the Corps. The report is a good start, but much more needs to be done.

It is no secret that the New Orleans flood control system was deeply and fatally flawed. Most of the blame does not go to any specific individual or group of individuals, but rather to an organizational structure that made it difficult for good decisions to be made and implemented. Fixing the technical problems will have only limited impact unless we also fix the organizational problems.

An ideal solution might be a National Flood Defense Authority, which would be charged with oversight over the construction and maintenance of levees and other infrastructure. The USACE, state flood control authorities, and a new technical advisory board would work with the NFDA to coordinate efforts and planning.

Peer Review

Short of the creation of such a new agency, much could still be done to improve the organization and performance of the flood control system. For example, three years before Katrina, the National Research Council concluded that the “Corps’ more complex planning studies should be subjected to independent review by objective, expert panels.” This is an obvious point – which makes it all the more urgent to implement it.

Although the need for independent project review has been apparent for several years, none of the past proposals have yet been implemented. Before the nation invests billions of dollars in the South Louisiana flood system, peer review needs to be in place. Legislation currently pending in Congress will help to address this issue.

This change is long overdue. It's remarkable, I think, that so much effort has gone into making EPA use "sound science" through the peer review process, while Congress took years to bestir itself to do so for flood control. Makes you wonder a little about what people's real agendas are.

It's possible to be too lean & mean.

Another problem is that the Corps has lost much of its technical strength. The USACE’s engineering and research capabilities have been degraded over the past twenty years as a result of streamlining and budget cuts. Although outsourcing can be efficient, it cannot be allowed to deplete USACE’s own core expertise.

This is a typical tradeoff. Short-term efficiency means getting ready of redundancy and focusing on achieving clearly defined goals reliably and cheaply. In the longer run, however, the organization looses adaptability.

The Army Corps of Engineers must be, first and foremost, the nation’s premiere expert in flood control engineering. Through no fault of its own, the Corps has been stripped of much of what it needs to perform this role. Congress needs to providing the funding to “put the ‘engineer’ back in the Corps of Engineers.”

We also know that the planning system failed in terms of economic and environmental reviews. I'll discuss those problems in my next posting.


Blogger Frank said...

I completely agree re your "too lean and mean" point. Health policy makers are starting to realize that as an aspect of disaster planning. We've shut so many hospitals that we've crippled our "surge capacity."

Vicki Schultz has an interesting piece coming out soon in the Yale J. of Health PLE about avoiding some of the worst consequences of this "efficiency obsession." I'd hope that policymakers would take Posner's book on "Catastrophe" more seriously.

Finally, there's a few facts about one aspect of the crisis here:

8/07/2006 12:52 PM  
Blogger Dan Farber said...

Thanks for the pointed about Vicki Schultz's forthcoming article. It sounds intriguing.

8/08/2006 10:59 AM  

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