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Of hierarchy and hoarding:
How “inefficiencies” actually make disaster relief “work”

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2006-2

Of hierarchy and hoarding:
How “inefficiencies” actually make disaster relief “work”

Sidney Dekker, Lund University, School of Aviation, SE-260 70 Ljungbyhed, Sweden. Email: sidney.dekker@tfhs.lu.se.
Nalini Suparamaniam, DNV Det Norske Veritas, Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) Management Consulting, Bjergstedsveien 1, 4002 Stavanger, Norway, Email: Nalini.suparamaniam@dnv.com
Keywords: procedures, plans, relief work, authority, hierarchy, efficiency

Sidney Dekker

Lund University
School of Aviation
SE-260 70 Ljungbyhed,

Nalini Suparamaniam

DNV Det Norske Veritas
Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) Management Consulting
Bjergstedsveien 1, 4002 Stavanger



Over a period of three years we interviewed over 150 relief workers and team leaders who had been “in the field”, as well as their managers at various levels. As predicted by the literature, the gap between administrative and deployment images of disaster relief work can be large—what Simon called “the insulation of higher levels of the administrative hierarchy from the world of fact” (1998; p. 320). What has not been highlighted before, however, is how this gap allows for “inefficiencies” (particularly in resource and logistics management) that actually help relief work function. Particularly tactical, local resource hoarding by team leaders, designed to reduce coupling and manage their own reputation and “prestige” proves possible only through the existence of gap. Thus, what makes disaster relief inefficient, is also what makes it “work” in terms of getting appropriate relief to local settings.

Of hierarchy and hoarding:
How “inefficiencies” actually make disaster relief “work”

The Gap Between Two Images of Relief Work

Whereas administrative images of relief work tend to stress hierarchy and structure, vertical control and allegiance to procedure and protocol (Cahill, 2003; Dynes, 1989; Katoch, 2006; McEntire, 1999; USAID, 2005;), deployment routinely implies local adaptation and improvisation (Owens, Forgione, & Briggs, 2005; Rochlin, 1999), disintegration of prespecified plans while striving to maintain overall organizational goals (Rosenberg, 1988; Shattuck & Woods, 1997), a blurring of responsibility across hierarchical strata (Coleman, 1974; Mechanic, 1962), lateral coordination and departures from pre-specified authority relationships (Dynes, 1989; Mintzberg, 1978; Trim, 2004), and a gradual substitution of experience for procedure as major resource for action, increasing the distance between work-as-imagined and work-as-done (Collins, 1981; Gephart, 1984; Pidgeon & O’Leary, 2000; Snook, 2000; Van Crefeld, 1987;).

When designing an organization for deployment in a distant, uncertain situation, it makes sense to overspecify plans and standardize (Cosgrave, 1997; Woods & Shattuck, 2000; Alexander, 2005), to proceduralize action (Snook, 2000), and emphasize hierarchical structure (e.g. Barbarosoglu, Özdamar, & Cevik, 2002, and see also Vaughan, 1999). Reasons include team members that are new to the setting, that do not know each other, and that are already familiar with deference to authority and protocol (e.g. military, community rescue services). Even when acknowledging that a divergence between work-as-planned and work-as-conducted will occur, formal structures still need to set “limits to the informal relations that are permitted to develop within it” (Simon, 1998; p. 198). For example, the diplomatic and political extensions of international disaster relief (Kelman, 2006) imposes higher-level constraints on local decision-making (because of requisite sensitivity to political, financial, or diplomatic implications of tactical relief decisions). These subtleties may elude local team leaders, thus demanding vertical control and bureaucratic accountability.

The formal image of decision making by team leaders in the field is thus one of deference to procedure, protocol and hierarchy. Decisions on the ground get made with reference to organizational structures, pre-specified written guidance, and detailed plans about what actions to take where and when and in adherence to whose authority and which rules. Preparation and training is in part about documenting and emphasizing authority relationships and organizational configurations. Situating such decision-making structures in environments that call for both adaptation to contingency and constraint and bureaucratic accountability can lead to a dissociation of knowledge and authority (Suparamaniam & Dekker, 2003), where local rescue team leaders have knowledge of what to do (because they are there) but lack the formal authority to decide on implementation. At the same time, people higher up in a structure have authority to approve implementation, but then lack the knowledge. Knowledge and authority are rarely located in the same actor, and hopes of bringing them together through communication technology could be overly optimistic. The necessarily limited bandwidth of fax or radio offers neither a persuasive rendering of context (this inability to communicate the subtleties of “being there” confronts many practitioner-insiders who cannot express essential understandings of their core work to others (Collins, 1981)), nor a resolution of what is fundamentally a problem of contingent organizational structure and hierarchy, not communication. Indeed, pushing decision responsibility up the line through such communication rarely leads to disambiguation. Decision makers at all levels can become apt to bounce responsibility up yet another level because of insufficient certainty about the exact sort of situation and applicable rules or level of decision making—consistent with Weber’s warnings about the irrationality of large hierarchical organizations in this regard (see Vaughan, 1999).

Compelled to act eventually (or immediately), local team leaders often do take charge even where no formal authority is mandated to them. This typically occurs through a process of mutual adjustment, of a renegotiation of authority (e.g., Fischoff, 1986; Mintzberg, 1978; Suparamaniam & Dekker, 2003). For team leaders, this is not “violating” rules or regulations, certainly no longer after an initial period of adjustment to reality in the field. They will justify deviance from procedure and protocol, by constructing accounts that bring their actions into harmony with social expectations: particularly getting the job of relief work done in that situation.

The Gap and a Dialectic of “Inefficiency”

Another area where the gap between the two images of relief work expresses itself strongly (and of which we find little in the literature) is in the management and logistics of resources (Oloruntoba, 2005). Given uncertainty and tight coupling (i.e. multiple, critical, concatenated dependencies that propagate effects through time and space, often via linkages that are difficult to anticipate—see Perrow (1984), Cook & Rasmussen (2003)), the management of resources (e.g. potable water, medical supplies) is a critical determinant of local relief work success (see also Weick & Sutcliffe, (2001)). Tight coupling is normally introduced in organizations to gain efficiency, to maximize resource utilization, but it leaves few buffers for absorbing unanticipated surges in workload or resource demand in relief missions. Team leaders actually attempt to reduce coupling, by hoarding a share of resources and hold it back for possible use in more pressurized times. This is consistent with findings from other fields. For example, in healthcare contexts, where nurses hoard “beds” (Cook & Rasmussen, 2003), and aircraft maintenance, where local crews hoard tools, hide their real “procedures” of how to get certain jobs done, or overestimate task times to buffer against unanticipated fluctuations in work pace and difficulty (McDonald, Corrigan, & Ward, 2002). Thus what makes a system “inefficient” also makes it work: without hamstering, relief team leaders would be unable to respond to contingencies, and unable to satisfy important organizational goals. In fact, team leaders maintain that hoarding is what makes them “efficient”:

“If we are to be efficient, we have to get as much as possible when we can from the mother organization or any other agency that is ready to provide for us. Just like the refugees or war victims affected in the mess out there, we are also hoarders. We keep, hide. Of course, many times we share what we can, but there is prestige which also means we have to show that we are successful. It means saving up for a rainy day like in the bank”. (Suparamaniam, 2003, p. 124)

Getting the job done is one important goal, but “prestige” is another, less explicit one: this comes from being able to deliver the aid in defiance of local odds or even expectations. Here team leaders, and their work, benefit from higher-level , and in the end their organization benefits too. Shrewd usage of resources in the field, including hiding, hoarding and piecemeal, tactical distribution, is a vital instrument for the subtle management of prestige and future access:

“Of course we are “selfish”. Come on. If we did not do it, then we’d have no reserves to do what is necessary when our resources are low. And yes, that prestige thing—yes, only share enough to look good, that happens too. Don’t give up your little extras. Then you get in trouble with the home office, your team, your next door tent, when you run out (Laughter)”. (Suparamaniam, 2003, p. 97)

Thus, team leaders sometimes make judgments about giving out just enough to meet outsider (i.e. head office, media, national) definitions of relief effort success, while preserving their own ability to act (and maintain local prestige and resource capital) in unforeseen future situations and not getting trapped in local destitution where favors need to be asked from the home office, the team, the next-door tent. Such local teamleader judiciousness becomes possible only through the separation of formal and actual decision making models. If head offices and their hierarchies would know more about local fluctuating resource needs and operational pressures, they would probably try to adapt their provision of resources to make a more globally rational-efficient match (which would tighten coupling and probably reduce mission success). In other words, the inadvertent concurrence between a globally “inefficient” system, but one that “works” is sustainable only because of the gap between the two images of work. If there was no gap in perception or knowledge of how work “really” goes on, there would be no local ad-hoc resource buffers as these would be rationalized away. The local creation of and capitalization on resource slack may be a more adaptive response to the inevitability of delay and doubt in disaster relief work. So team leaders in the field not only do their part to help create the gap between these two different images. They also reap benefits from the gap, they nurture it, can act on it and endow it with meaning in terms of their and their organization’s goals—whether stated or not.


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Sidney Dekker & Nalini Suparamaniam © 2006. The authors assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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