posted Oct 01, 2006

I've learned to be careful about the definitions for the words I use. Our lives have become more complicated and even as our vocabulary has grown by leaps and bounds it's still not enough. Ever finer and sharper distinctions must be drawn in order to convey the information; I can spend a good ten pages just defining "censorship" and "free speech".

Today's word that is bothering me is the word "mismanagement". Lately it seems to mean one of two things: "Less than absolutely perfect" and "crimes committed in the context of a large organization". This is as opposed to the "natural" meaning of "a failure to correctly organize and execute a plan to drive many people towards a given goal with effective resource use".

The problem with using "perfection" as a standard for management is probably plainly evident to anybody reading this. Even "excellent management" can not attain perfection with any group of humans, it's just that it's a lot better than what would happen with poor management. The mere existance of mistakes or bad things isn't proof of "mismanagement".

I'm seeing this word tossed around some in my local governor's race in Michigan by some Internet commenters. Detroit really is the Motor City; it's not a clever slogan, it's an accurate description of where the money in Detroit and the Detroit area comes from. The entire state's economy has been based on automobile sales. As the American automotive industry has gone into its well-documented doldrums, Govenor Granholm (D) has presided over an incredibly bad economy, bleeding tens of thousands of jobs and dropping to the bottom fifth of most ways I've seen of ranking state's relative economies.

But is this truly "mismanagement"? I'm not a huge fan of Granholm's political platform, but I find it hard to blame her for the economy. It wouldn't have mattered who was in charge over the past six years, Michigan was going to tank with the auto companies. I haven't got anywhere near enough evidence to believe that she truly mismanaged the state. Maybe she did. Then again, maybe somebody else would have done even worse. Who can tell? (Probably somebody, but I don't care to do the hours of research I'd need to come to a tentative opinion for this blog post when it doesn't even really matter to my main point. :) )

Without more evidence to back it up, it's not a good accusation.

What prompted this rant was accusations that Kofi Annan has mismanaged the UN:

But behind the honorifics and the accolades lies a darker story: of incompetence, mismanagement and worse. Annan was the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) between March 1993 and December 1996. The Srebrenica massacre of up to 8,000 men and boys and the slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda happened on his watch. In Bosnia and Rwanda, UN officials directed peacekeepers to stand back from the killing, their concern apparently to guard the UN’s status as a neutral observer. This was a shock to those who believed the UN was there to help them.

Note the evidence seemingly provided that the UN was "mismanaged" involves basically allowing various slaughterings and genocides to occur, rather than trying to stop them.

I submit that that's not "mismanagement" at all, though. I'm fairly certain Kofi had no desire or capability to stop the slaughter, and therefore, very effectively managed his organization to accomplish that non-goal. You may disagree with the goal (I do), but that's not mismanagement, that's effective management.

(For what it's worth, my disrespect for the UN's peacekeeping ability was slightly reduced by the recent news story that thirteen French tanks [are] the most powerful armor ever deployed by a U.N. peacekeeping force. I've shifted from "lack of will" as the sole cause to at least some degree of "lack of ability"; how you stop a dedicated genocidal army from doing anything without even any tanks is beyond me, and I don't think 13 would even cut it in Africa, let alone against somebody as well armed as Hezbollah. More people still need to see "UN peacekeeping" as a joke and not a panacea, but I'm assigning a heavier portion of the blame to the member country's lack of desire to back up lofty rhetoric with actual effort, rather than the UN itself. I actually think the UN, given the opportunity, would "mismanage" such a force, but at this point that's just conjecture.)

We should reserve the word "mismanagement" for situations where resources are actually mismanaged, and not use the word as merely an insult.


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