Why do they do that? Bureaucrats and Organization Directors, too.

The Coyote Blog takes on Government, Arrogant Ignorance, and the Power of Incentives.

As most of you know, my company operates parks on public lands, so I work with government agencies a lot. Years ago, from this experience, I coined a term called “arrogant ignorance.” It comes from numerous times when government employees will be completely ignorant of some process, perhaps even their agency’s own rules and procedures, but will fight to the death any suggestion that I might be able to enlighten them or that they are doing something wrong.

For a while, people had me believing that I had just rediscovered the Dunning–Kruger effect. But I am now convinced that this is not the same as my “arrogant ignorance”. And the difference between the two highlights a key point about failure of government I have made for years, which is that government does a bad job not because the people are bad, but because it hires good (or at least average) people who have terrible incentives and information.

But my concept of arrogant ignorance is not really a cognitive effect, I think, but rather a symptom of incentives. The problem with most government jobs is that they have no service or output metrics so that they are instead judged mainly on conformance to procedure. And even that is not quite correct, because most agencies I work with do not even have formal standards or quality review processes for their employees, at least below the executive level.

I want to take an aside here on incentives. It is almost NEVER the case that an organization has no incentives or performance metrics. Yes, it is frequently the case that they may not have clear written formal metrics and evaluations and incentives. But every organization has informal, unwritten incentives. Sometimes, even when there are written evaluation procedures, these informal incentives dominate.

This isn’t a phenomena restricted to government employees. For example, see the 2014 Acceptance Speech by incoming WBCCI President, Joe Perryman and WBCCI life member Phil Pons Presentation on Leadership and Presentation Concerns for WBCCI. The WBCCI governing board has been accused of Arrogant Ignorance for a long time and many of the incentives for board members are the same as the Coyote describes for government employees. The WBCCI does have a service metric – its membership and participation – but it does not appear that the organization leaders can connect this to their own behavior even though presidents such as Perryman have laid it out for them. The leaders show themselves to be “completely ignorant of some process, perhaps even their agency’s own rules and procedures” yet blindly dedicated to “informal, unwritten incentives.”

So, I try to learn from this. One thing, for example, I always do is ask myself when someone who works for me screws up, “Is this really my fault, for not training them well.” A surprising number of times, the answer is a reluctant, “yes”.

A business that wants to continue to exist must learn like this. Any organization that wants to remain healthy must do likewise. Business, social organization, or government all need leadership and responsible executive behavior to remain viable and useful.

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