Thursday, October 2, 2014

Institutional trust

So on the one hand, we have effusive praise for the expertise and efficiency of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, particularly in how it is handling the threat of Ebola entering the U.S. from travelers coming from western African nations, notably Liberia.

On the other hand we have the U.S. Secret Service. Putatively one of the best protective agencies in the world, it's now being rocked by daily revelations of incompetence.

These agencies do crucial work. We expect them to do it well. We need them to do it well. Every time one of them screws up, it erodes our belief in the possibility that any big institution, but especially government, can work well.

That's a powerful incentive to hide malfeasance, especially in our blame-first media environment. That's apparently what the now-ex-Secret Service director tried to do, until she was caught out by the press and had to 'fess up.

We need these agencies to come clean not just with us, but with themselves. The Secret Service, for instance, seems to be under the impression that its lapses are being overblown. Those who think so are wrong, and they need to understand that. As the saying goes, the first step is to admit you have a problem.

These agencies aren't perfect and they will make mistakes. What counts is how they respond. Earlier this year the CDC was rocked by its own scandal, it apparently having lost track of a cache of the smallpox virus kept for research purposes. After a week or two of uncomfortable scrutiny, the story died down. I'm pretty sure that's because no more losses have been uncovered; I doubt any more losses could have been concealed. The result? We're all looking to the CDC to keep Ebola from getting a foothold in the U.S. We trust the agency.

The Secret Service is going to have to work its ass off to regain the same level of trust. And it had better succeed. It's not just the Presiden't life on the line, it's trust in governmental institutions as a whole. After all, if the Secret Service can't live up to expectations, what agency can?

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