Monday 5 December 2011

Civil society and earthquake recovery

There remains an excellent PhD thesis to be written on civil society responses in post-earthquake Christchurch. One man who will feature prominently: the University of Canterbury's Sam Johnson, who mobilised an army of students to clean liquifaction silt from thousands of Christchurch properties. Here's The Herald:
He led an army in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, and Sam Johnson admits there were times he felt like he was at war with the authorities.

The 22-year-old Canterbury University student mobilised thousands into a Student Volunteer Army to clean up tonnes of liquefaction - the silt and sludge produced when an earthquake hits loosely packed, water-logged soil - swamping neighbourhoods after the disastrous jolts.

His leadership has made him one of the finalists for the Herald's New Zealander of the Year award.

But he says there were times along the way when he was tempted to throw in the towel.

In the early stages, Mr Johnson says, Civil Defence tried to either shut down or take over the operation because of the risks of students going into a disaster zone.

Some senior city council staff and Army personnel were also "particularly 'anti' it". Mr Johnson was told he could be held personally liable if something bad happened to any of the volunteers.
And the Christchurch Mayor's reaction to the lauding of the hero who couldn't be stopped by his bureaucrats?
Christchurch mayor Bob Parker says he could not think of anyone more deserving of recognition. Mr Johnson's rallying of students to support quake victims was a "genius stroke". "He inspired a whole city, and actually a whole nation. He delivered to those most in need in our city. He was one of the great heroes of the Christchurch earthquakes."
Would be even better if he found those who tried to stand in Johnson's way, and fires them all. I have a hard time imagining that folks of that type are any kind of help in rebuilding town. HT: @KeithNg


  1. An interesting economic problem - from a Public Choice perspective namely bureaucrats protecting their patch. Also however the sheer terror we all experience in these 'OSHified' times at the thought of someone even breaking a nail doing tasks which have not been officially sanctioned.

  2. ..yep those civil defense, council and army types; you know the cover your ar&% bureaucrat genotype will do everything to ensure a fledgling emergency turns into a full scale disaster. They ignore that autonomic human trait to actually help other humans in distress. I can imagine that thesis on "civil society responses in post-earthquake Christchurch" would never get past the censors of closed minds and protected jobs!

  3. omgod another l love Christchurch and gay Bob story

  4. Hmmm. In this case yes, fortunately nobody was hurt going into a the disaster zone and they do appear to have made a positive contribution to the recovery. This is not to say that it is always a good idea to allow hordes of well-meaning citizens onto a disaster site to get to work in whatever way seems best to them. They may actually make things worse through not being properly briefed, equipped or coordinated (eg digging Rena oil further into the sand). They may get themselves into trouble and mean that rescue services and their resources are faced with an additional problem on top of the ones they are already trying to cope with. These are real risks and putting them down simply to bureaucrats protecting their own ar&%s is an injustice to the public servants involved.

  5. @Hathaway: You're just trying to wind me up, now, aren't you?

  6. No, not particularly. I can't see what is so provocative about my comment and therefore it is difficult to elucidate further, but perhaps I could try a parable to illustrate, since economists seem to like those.

    If I saw somebody playing Russian Roulette, even if it was to raise a huge amount of money for a very worthwhile charity, I'd want to try to stop him. If he went ahead, despite my efforts, and survived, that would not prove that I'd been wrong to try to stop him.

    Add in the proviso that I know more about the risks the would-be player is facing than he does (eg I know that there are four loaded barrels, not one as he supposes). I would say that I now have a very strong responsibility to try to prevent him from going ahead.

    Again, the extent of that responsibility is not changed by the subsequent outcome - if he does it anyway and survives, that doesn't prove that I should not have tried to prevent him, no matter how much money he raises for charity.

    Yes, my own interests as well as his are protected if I prevent him from taking an ill-advised risk - I avoid the blame and clean-up cost that would accrue to me if he took the risk and lost. But isn't that a good example of well-aligned incentives?

  7. @Hathaway: Specify two types of error. In the first case, Council is too lenient, people take risks they oughtn't take, and folks die or are injured. Big headlines, whoever signed off gets in trouble. In the second case, Council is insanely risk averse, stops even business owners who hire their own SARTECs, and blocks all access to downtown. In that case, high risk that town dies instead, but it's hard to point to somebody to blame.

    Council has, post February, leaned very heavily in favour of mitigating all possible risk, at the potential cost of killing the city.

  8. Yup; civil defence professionals, on the ground, at the time, with a personal stake in the outcome, put the balancing point between the two types of error at a different place from where an armchair critic, with the benefit of hindsight, thinks it ought to have been put.

    And that's grounds for firing the lot of them?

  9. The main point is that there's a divergence between the political costs and the actual costs of the two types of error, leading to a bias in administrative decisions relative to a cost-benefit maximization outcome. The guys in the cleanup army were no less on the ground at the time and had more personal stake in the outcome; relative to them, the bureau guys who tried to stop them were the armchair critics.

    Look at the lit on the costs of FDA errors by comparison. Dale Gierenger estimated that the FDA kills 4-10 times as many people through delayed approvals than it saves by keeping bad drugs out. The political costs of errors in delay are smaller than the political costs of errors in releasing drugs that oughtn't be released, and so the system's biased towards avoiding the one type of error even when doing so induces more fatalities.

    Since the February quake, Council has been exceedingly risk averse. It is tough to find an efficiency case for banning somebody who had his own team of search and rescue guys from getting stuff out of his own office - again, those are the guys on the ground at the time with the personal stake in the outcome who were banned by the council bureaucrats from doing what they thought best at their own risk and at their own cost. I think the best model for it is the asymmetric political costs of errors of insufficient regulation and errors of excessive regulation, where Council would expect to bear heavy political costs if bad outcomes obtained from letting folks in too quickly but more diffused costs if a bunch of businesses are killed by Council's refusal to let folks access their own buildings at their own risk. More deference should have been paid to property owners who demonstrated a capacity for bearing risk themselves.

    And I just don't buy that the civil defence guys had more personal stake than those who volunteered to help out their neighbours. Better information? Maybe. But even that's pretty unclear.

    The kinds of folks who would have stopped the student army, who would evict Joe Bennett from his house despite Joe very capably demonstrating his full acceptance of the risks, who banned building owners from accessing their properties while demolition contractors find it safe enough to strip the building and steal the contents - I'd push the button to be rid of them.

    Note that while my criticism in this particular case may benefit from hindsight, I was, back in March, making very similar complaint about similar Council decisions. I just had no clue at the time that anybody would have dreamed of trying to stop the student volunteer army. Armchair? Maybe. But I was also banned for a month from accessing my office armchair because of this kind of risk aversion. Were you?

  10. You say, correctly, that Council would expect to bear heavy political costs if bad outcomes obtained from letting folks in too quickly but more diffuse costs if they err in the opposite direction. Completely agree.

    Why then is it so surprising that anybody might think that bad outcomes were possible if a load of well-meaning but untrained, uncoordinated, ill-equipped amateurs were allowed into a disaster zone? How do you think their families and the media would have reacted if some of them had been killed or badly injured, diverting scarce resources from other urgent tasks? How long do you think the Council official who made the call to let them in would have lasted?

    And the Council is responding to that incentive. If you fire them and replace them with others, those others will face the same incentive and they will respond in the same way. What else would an economist expect people to do in response to an incentive?

    The real issue is to ask how we can change that incentive - ie, prevent the media and the internet chatter reacting to every misadventure with demands for heads to roll, as though it could and should have been prevented if only some "beauracrat" had done their job properly.

  11. Well, one way of changing the incentives is to raise the expected political costs of actions that generate diffused costs. Hence the blog post.

  12. Here you go, from today's DomPost:

    "the inquiry has been told that Christchurch City Council delayed the demolition of two Colombo St buildings crippled in the September 2010 earthquake because of their heritage status. When the killer earthquake struck on February 22, both buildings collapsed. One fell on a bus, killing eight people, the other claimed the lives of four pedestrians.

    The council is yet to respond in full to the claims, which include that it also failed to fence off one of the buildings to protect the public. However, if they are found to be true, it will face questions about whether it put sentimentality ahead of public safety."

    And I doubt that it will find many friends in the media, or that the heritage fans will be leaping to show their solidarity.

  13. The whole thing has been a mess, hasn't it? Prior to the earthquakes, heritage regs made it really difficult for folks who really cared about heritage to earthquake-strengthen their buildings. After September, when nothing much fell over, heritage considerations trumped owners' wishes. When buildings fell over in February, safety considerations trumped both heritage and owner's wishes. Common thread? Far too little respect paid to owners' property rights.

    How hard would it be to flip to a regime where building owners could liable if their buildings aren't up to spec and caused harm, where heritage considerations are covered by having Council pay the owners of heritage buildings to maintain the amenity value, and owners then balance up safety considerations against potential losses in amenity payments from Council?

    I'd love it if we could just scrub the existing heritage regulations and instead have Council establish a fund buying heritage easements from property owners, and allowing the rest of us to contribute additional money to that fund. I'd be willing to throw some cash in to help preserve heritage amenities in town. The current system encourages that too many buildings be listed with too few resources put into keeping them up.

  14. I have just read that the Herald's New Zealander Of The Year award has gone to some rugby player.

    So this is what the Herald thinks of people who get up off their arses and energise huge numbers of people to pitch in to help a whole city which had been devastated by our biggest natural disaster in 60 years. Sad.