What do the FDA and the police have in common? Both are experiencing social economic forces which wish to dislodge their present structure so their work more appropriately lines up with the social objectives they are designed to address.
Both are taxpayer funded agencies in the business of protecting the public. The Food and Drug Administration has the very worthy mandate to prevent consumers from adverse outcomes in the consumption of food and drug products. The police protect citizens from physical harm as well as criminal activity of all kinds.
Both agencies are comprised of public servants who stop bad things from happening. Or- that’s the goal. The reality is that they are complex systems made up of individuals with their own egos, ambitions, talents and flaws.
In just the first half of 2020, two flashpoints have pulled the curtain back on these nests of worker bees revealing that the systems in place are not performing at optimal levels.
The coronavirus response has been logistical nightmare for the FDA. Early on there was a string of fiascos involving the testing kits. While countries in Asia were testing in the tens of thousands, the wealthiest country in the world could only cough up a few hundred per state. Then there was the N95 mask confusion.
Furthermore, when other entities stepped in to help, the FDA skated in on a power play to exert their dominance. Scientists were perplexed when it stopped a coronavirus testing program promoted by philanthropist Bill gates and endorsed by the state of Seattle.
The Minneapolis police gained worldwide criticism for the handling of George Floyd’s arrest and death in late May. After decades of claims by the minority community of unequal treatment, the proof they needed was played out millions of times on a viral video of the event. Here, the power player credited with keeping bad cops on the beat is the police union chief Robert Kroll.
Whether the fear to relent power is due to the adage ‘give a little, lose a lot’ or driven by a J Edgar Hoover sized ego, the result is the same. There is a catch in the system that is not released until a tragedy begets a revolution.
Only people in the thick of the action have access to the fine granular differences in norms that play out in actions, that get left unsaid and undocumented. From the outside it is difficult to determine the constraints that need to be lifted so the natural process of allowing the civil servants with well-aimed convictions to do their jobs and to push those lacking such vision out.
But there must be a mechanism. Every standard, every law, every norm must have the capacity to be reformulated. Otherwise grifters and takers will see an arbitrage opportunity and play it to their advantage.
The latest clarion has been to unbundle the police, to separate out their services so the appropriate level of force is matched to the activity. The city of LA just enacted such a community based measure. The city council of Minneapolis is going after a more aggressive approach of petitioning to change the city charter so as to grant them control. This is being met with resistance by residences as violence in the city continues to rise. Meanwhile 150 police officers file for disability. Both actions are sinkholes in a 155Mbudget shortfall.
The concept of unbundling aims to dislodge old relationships, to screen a vision from a new vantage point, and in doing so to grow a culture better suited to address the social objective at hand. Both the FDA and the police could use a some unbundling. But will it be enough to break down the old power structure? And how will we know before the next traumatic event causes loss of life?