This article addresses the question of to what extent conventional theories of high reliability organizations and normal accidents theory are applicable to public bureaucracy. Empirical evidence suggests precisely this. Relevant cases are, for instance, collapsing buildings and bridges due to insufficient supervision of engineering by the relevant authorities, infants dying at the hands of their own parents due to misperceptions and neglect on the part of child protection agencies, uninterrupted serial killings due to a lack of coordination among police services, or improper planning and risk assessment in the preparation of mass events such as soccer games or street parades. The basic argument is that conceptualizing distinct and differentiated causal mechanisms is useful for developing more fine-grained variants of both normal accident theory and high reliability organization theory that take into account standard pathologies of public bureaucracies and inevitable trade-offs connected to their political embeddedness in democratic and rule-of-law-based systems to which belong the tensions between responsiveness and responsibility and between goal attainment and system maintenance. This, the article argues, makes it possible to identify distinct points of intervention at which permissive conditions with the potential to trigger risk-generating human action can be neutralized while the threshold that separates risk-generating human action from actual disaster can be raised to a level that makes disastrous outcomes less probable.

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