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Robert M. La Follette
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Moynihan examines Hurricane Katrina, red tape

How an agency’s culture affects the actions the agency takes is illuminated in new research from public affairs scholar Donald Moynihan on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was slowed by an agency culture that imposed red tape to limit engagement in crisis response and thus maintain autonomy, Moynihan finds.

“DOD leaders altered the response by committing to another cultural assumption widely shared within the agency: a “can-do” approach to achieving difficult goals regardless of obstacles,” Moynihan says. “The case illustrates how different organizational cultural assumptions interact with red tape to foster either inertia or a proactive response.”

Moynihan uses this case study and findings from studies on organizational culture and sense-making (the process through which an agency and its employees recognize and take appropriate responses to new challenges) to develop a theory of culture-switching. “Culture-switching occurs when organizational actors shift emphasis from one existing organizational cultural assumption to another to reshape organizational action,” Moynihan says. “The DOD cut through its red tape to by emphasizing a can-do attitude to speed up its response — unlike other responders.”

Moynihan analyzed public reports about Katrina from the White House, House and Senate committee reports and hearings transcripts. He supplemented these documents with information from investigative reports. His findings will be published in the journal Public Administration and are available as La Follette School Working Paper 2011-018. He presented the paper at annual meetings of the International Research Society for Public Management and the Academy of Management. The National Science Foundation supported the research.

Moynihan wins NSF grant, July 21, 2009, La Follette School News

— posted October 13, 2011