After the screw-up comes the inevitable demand for a head — or, even better — heads to roll. Call it faux-countability, the phenomenon by which someone takes the fall for a mess for which he or she is at most only partly responsible.

So a would-be bomber gets on a plane: Fire Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano!

Three people sneak into a state dinner: Fire White House social secretary Desiree Rogers! Fire the head of the Secret Service, too!

I’m all in favor of real accountability — canning the incompetent, in government and out. If you’re in over your head, then by all means: out the door. When a senior official demonstrably flubs a crucial task or demonstrates bad judgment, then by all means: out the door in time for the evening news.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a good example of a man who got it wrong and stayed — or was allowed to stay — too long. Michael Brown, the hapless former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is a good example of a man who never should have been in the job — and was appropriately ousted when it became clear that he had fiddled while New Orleans flooded.

And there no doubt were, in the Christmas almost-bombing and the state dinner security breach, human as well as systemic failures. Someone was so dazzled by Michaele and Tareq Salahi that he forgot to check the official guest list to see if the couple was actually invited. Someone, or ones, failed to take seriously enough the warning from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father about his son’s growing radicalization. These things should go, as my kids would say, in their permanent record.

But as satisfying as it might feel to haul out the guillotine, as mesmerizing as the descent of the glittering blade, the only real problem these public beheadings solve is political. The lapses that let Abdulmutallab onto the plane with explosives sewn inside his underwear are not likely to be traceable to any individual Cabinet secretary. Playing another round of musical chairs with the counterterrorism bureaucracy would only serve to add to the disorder, not resolve it.

The faux-countability instinct is even stronger in sports, as the recent firing of Redskins Coach Jim Zorn demonstrates. But is this a rational response to a bad season? A 2006 economic study of the six seasons of the Portuguese soccer league suggests not.

“Our results show that firing the coach does not improve the team’s performance and, on the contrary, seems to have a harmful effect in the long run,” the study’s author, Sandra Maximiano, concluded. “Teams that fired the coach after a spell of bad results seem to recover after firing. But this would also have happened if they had chosen not to fire the coach, simply because luck would eventually turn on their side.”

Indeed, Maximiano finds, compared with similarly underperforming teams that kept their coaches, teams that fired coaches tended to score fewer goals and concede more goals.

“Our results suggest that the coach is merely a scapegoat,” she writes, “used by the team’s board to appease disgruntled fans and perhaps to distract attention from their own bad management choices.”

Sounds awfully familiar, to close observers of sports and politics alike.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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