From the Government Studio

First, Do No Harm (Part 4)

Unintended Consequences

Utah Capitol and FlagJim Nielson, AIA, is a Senior Principal with CRSA and a Utah State Representative. First, Do No Harm is a series of posts about how what happens on Utah’s Capitol Hill affects public, business, and personal budgets. This final post reviews the difficulty of tracing the outcome of decisions accurately and emphasizes the need to be aware of the consequences.

 

Missed a Part?

Whenever governments or other groups set out as a group to accomplish something, the challenge usually is not so much putting a policy in place and mobilizing resources as it is ensuring that what we do actually accomplishes the objective.

We work together in government and organized groups to accomplish what no one could do individually. What I’ve noticed as a participant in government and as an observer of group dynamics is that collective responses to situations are often vastly different from individual reactions. Sometimes that is for the better. Sometimes it’s worse.

A recent news report about the capsized ferry off the Korean peninsula, for example, reported the following details gleaned from the few survivors:  Before hundreds of passengers (mostly high school students on a field trip) went missing—trapped in the sinking ship—and as the boat began to list, the captain and crew encouraged passengers to stay in place below deck rather than make their way to life rafts.

I have to believe the crew thought they were acting in the interest of the passengers; however, if these charges are proven true, the effect of their actions seems to have been just the opposite. Individual decisions (every man for himself) would likely have had a better outcome.

This seagoing tragedy reminds me of accounts of the horrific fire in Chicago at Our Lady of the Angels School in 1958. Ninety-two pupils and three nuns lost their lives in that blaze. The historical record suggests that when the danger became apparent, some of the nuns encouraged the children to sit at their desks or gather in a semicircle and pray rather than make an effort to find a way out.

Again, individual decisions would probably have been better.

But every man for himself has its disadvantages also. As I’ve studied occupant reactions to fires in nightclubs, for instance, I’ve studied cases where people were killed by stampeding crowds rather than by the fire itself. Investigations of what happened in other nightclub fires (which to this day happen all too frequently) show that, left to their own devices, people sometimes die while holding back—hesitant to rush to safety. The thinking is that some are paralyzed, waiting to see what others will do, possibly out of a desire to avoid embarrassment.

The common thread here is that getting it wrong can have devastating consequences. And the best-meaning individual and public responses to danger don’t always improve things. These same observations apply in many ways to finance and public policy, as well. Sometimes the outcome is mixed, like the emotions of the man in the fable told to fill his pockets with rocks, only to find them later transformed into jewels. Our fable protagonist was happy for all those jewels but sad he had not stuffed even more rocks into his pockets.

Indeed, policies enacted by Utah’s legislature affect not just the health of our communities and public coffers; they drill down deep into the physical and financial well being of every business and individual in Utah. Some of the impact is easy to trace. Other levers are pulled from behind a curtain we cannot easily penetrate. The more we pay attention, however, and the more we communicate with our public officials, the better our chances of influencing policy for the common good.

When we’ve done that, what is left is to watch closely to make sure that newly enacted policies achieve the intended results.

So watch closely; see whether the changes we made in 2014 are on target. For, as my colleague still reminds me, acting together in an effort to improve things, we must—

“First, do no harm!”

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  1. Pingback: First, Do No Harm (Part 3) | The CRSA Blog

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