Ausschnitt des Buchcovers
Ausschnitt des Buchcovers

Administrative failures with fatalities

In their latest book ‘Verwaltungsdesaster’ (Public Administration Disasters), Wolfgang Seibel, Professor of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz, and his co-authors Kevin Klamann and Hannah Treis, investigate the nature of severe organisational failures that resulted in the loss of human lives.

One such case is the Love Parade disaster which occurred in the city of Duisburg in 2010. It was only in December 2017 that a criminal trial opened against ten defendants charged with being responsible for the planning errors and mismanagement of the mass event that left 21 people dead and 652 injured. In their book ‘Verwaltungsdesaster’ (Public Administration Disasters – from the Love Parade to the NSU investigations), Seibel, Klamann and Treis reconstruct the Love Parade disaster and three other cases of serious administrative failures with similarly tragic consequences: the collapse of the ice-skating arena in Bad Reichenhall in 2006 with a death toll of 15 people, the death of three-year-old Yagmur in Hamburg in 2013 under the very eyes of the city’s child protection authorities, and the failures in the police investigations into the racist murders of small shopkeepers with primarily Turkish immigrant background known as the ‘NSU murders’. Three of the four case studies are based on student seminar projects and final theses.

According to Professor Seibel, events with such disastrous consequences are rare because the general weaknesses of administrative bodies – such as coordination and communication problems, or rivalries over powers and responsibilities – are well-known and covered by suitable control measures. But it is still possible that strong counter-productive influences can lead to these regulations being breached. This was the case in both Duisburg and in Bad Reichenhall, where the politicisation of expert decisions was a significant factor, as the book shows in the case reconstructions. In Duisburg political demands specified that the Love Parade would be staged, despite the unsuitability of the location for the mass event. In Bad Reichenhall it was a political decision not to invest an additional 20,000 euros in an expertise to assess the structural stability of a building that was scheduled for demolition anyway, and to deliberately disregard an existing city council resolution to completely overhaul the structure.

Professor Seibel suspects a different decisive mechanism is involved in the cases of the three-year-old little girl, Yagmur, who died as a result of abusive treatment by her mother, and the series of NSU murders of small retailers with migrant backgrounds. In these cases the investigations were badly coordinated by federal and regional police, and for a long time were misinterpreted as crimes related to the socio-cultural context. Although in both cases there were clear indications of child abuse on the one hand, and of terrorist attacks on the other, they were not investigated with the required level of intensity. According to Seibel, the lack of diligence in the handling of the cases can also be partly explained by the fact that the victims in both cases were either unable or hardly able to express themselves particularly well.

Consequently, there are two hypotheses: there is a potential danger when organisational arrangements tend to distort powers and responsibilities. There is also a danger involved in the following situation: the pressure on the administrative personnel is heavy, but the likelihood of being made accountable is relatively little.

Wolfgang Seibel calls such cases of administrative failure ‘black swans’, because they are rare. His research has been awarded funding from the prestigious Reinhart Koselleck programme of the German Research Foundation (DFG). Reinhart Koselleck Projects are designed to enable ‘outstanding researchers with a proven track record to pursue exceptionally innovative, higher-risk projects’, in the positive sense. Professor Seibel will receive 550,000 euros over the next five years to help determine the causal mechanisms of administrative failures with tragic consequences.

Facts:

  • Book: Wolfgang Seibel, Kevin Klamann, Hannah Treis: Verwaltungsdesaster. Von der Loveparade bis zu den NSU-Ermittlungen. Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/New York 2017 (Public Administration Disasters – From the Love Parade to the NSU Investigations)
  • Reconstruction of four cases of administrative failures with tragic consequences
  • Additional cases of serious administrative failure will be investigated in the Reinhart Koselleck Project ‘Schwarze Schwäne in der Verwaltung: Seltenes Organisationsversagen mit schwerwiegenden Folgen’ (Black swans in public administration: rare organisational failure with severe consequences)
  • Funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) worth 500,000 euros plus additional overhead funding.