Michael Brown must be the most hated and mocked man in America right now.
Earlier this afternoon, Brown's boss, Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, announced that Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (known as FEMA), was returning to Washington, D.C., from New Orleans. A deputy will now oversee Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.
Brown has come under intense criticism and scrutiny this week for FEMA's sluggish and hapless response to the unfolding disaster on the Gulf Coast. Brown's problems seemed to snowball following an interview on CNN during which he admitted that he had only just discovered that refugees had massed at the New Orleans convention center, even though that news had been widely reported for several days. And today, Time magazine's website reports that Brown appears to have lied on his already skimpy resumé. As a result, lots and lots of people, particularly Democratic congressmen and newspaper columnists, have called for Bush to fire Brown.
As we all know, however, the president has a trackrecord of standing by cabinet secretaries in tough times (see Rumsfeld, Donald.) And eariler this week, Bush was quoted as telling Brown that he was doing "a heck of a job."
Now, I know that the situation in New Orleans is a profound human tragedy, and I don't mean to downplay it by regarding it through the management lens. Still, I think the current situation raises some interesting questions for managers. To wit:
Should Bush fire Brown? If so, on what grounds? Should he be fired because he didn't organize a proper relief effort swiftly?
If, as some people have argued, more of the fault lies with state and local officials, is Brown nevertheless deserving of a pink slip because he didn't anticipate and overcome other people's mistakes?
Can he be fired simply for losing public confidence?
Is the lying-on-the-resumé bit a fire-able offense, or is that merely a trivial detail here?
Is there anyone out there (forgive me for asking this in such a loaded way) who thinks Bush should keep Brown on? If so, what's your reasoning?
I also have a few questions about Bush's handling of the situation.
Is it okay, as a manager, to tell someone that they're doing a good job, only to turn around and strip them of authority a week later?
What's up with stripping Brown of his duties anyway? Why take an interim step? Why not simply fire him (or force him to resign) rather than have him abdicate responsibility but not his actual job?
And is it smart for Bush to let Chertoff handle the matter, or should he have taken the buck-stops-here approach, and himself personally announced Brown's removal from duty? Does anyone believe it wiser for Bush (managerially speaking, not politically) to leave that task in the hands of the person to whom Brown reports directly?