The Disaster within a Disaster - A Call
current model by which the publics business is transacted in
the federal system needs serious rethinking and retooling.
This article is a call for such action to take place more
seriously now than ever before.
amazing American institution, the federal system, has worked
brilliantly for 21 decades. It has survived challenges from a
Civil War, Depression and rebellion. It has survived external
challenges from war and international terrorism.
can be argued that the creation of the United States
Constitution, with its checks and balances, advise and
consent, and built-in default to compromise based on shared
values represents a true example of intelligent design by
those amazing founding fathers.
Constitution also has another default besides compromise. That
is the default to modification by evolution rather than
process of constitutional amendment is slow and
cumbersome - and deliberately so. Fundamental change in
the federal government involves processes which are akin to
crawling over broken glass or dentistry before
are seeing, however, a series of world changes in this decade
which challenge the ability of the federal system in the years
federal system, including the roughly 87,000 state and local
governments which are supposed to be in partnership with the
federal government, appears to be unable or unwilling to
reshape itself at a pace appropriate to the challenges which
These are unprecedented
challenges. They are driven by technology, resource scarcity
to a degree previously unknown, and to new realities of
international interdependence which makes the concept of the
Fortress America far less viable. The changes are coming and
they are unstoppable.
need for intergovernmental reform will also become more acute.
If reasonable reforms are not made in a thoughtful manner,
they will be made in the aftermath of immense waste, harm to
people and squandered opportunities.
This article is driven by the
fact that the HR Doctor is now sitting in an emergency
operations center awaiting the arrival of the latest in a
series of South Florida hurricane threats. Call it Katrina,
Rita or Wilma, the scope of this natural disaster threat is
beyond what any local or state government can manage on its
Agencies of the federal
government seem equally unable to cope consistently well in
terms of internal management of their own functions,
interaction with local government partners, or the ability to
manage multiple substantial disasters
This article also came to be
during three days of driving in the past month through eastern
Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and throughout Florida.
The HR Doctor saw clear signs of continuing hurricane damage
including debris, public accommodation dysfunction, military
convoys, and evacuee shelter and service centers.
three decades of public experience, including service as the
chief administrative officer of a county government, as well
as critical incident management, the HR Doctors conclusion is
that, increasingly, the federal government is too big and
cumbersome to handle "small" problems such as the care of one
person or one family.
the flip side, it is also too small to manage the new breed of
worldwide issues such as management of the Internet,
containment of a worldwide pandemic threat, disjointed and
loosely affiliated terrorist networks, and disasters on a
multinational and gigantic scale.
Likewise, the city or county
would be swamped if it had to face any of the issues described
above on its own. Individual agencies lack the resources,
expertise and capacity to succeed in these areas.
of this is true despite amazingly dedicated and talented, and
very smart local government and federal employees.
Curious readers are invited to
see the section entitled "The Department of Homeland
Insecurity Ñ Forging One Nation out of Separate Tribes" in the
HR Doctors book Dont Walk by Something Wrong! for
some additional perspective on the issue of federal and
intergovernmental reform. Here are some more
many fire departments does it take to protect a local
community? In the urban county where the HR Doctor lives, the
answer is apparently about two dozen. That means each
department has its own chief, assistant chief and fire
stations laid out inefficiently and many other
problem of child protection against abuse and imminent harm is
better done by a county level organization, closer and more
accountable to the population than by a slower moving state
Health care for the indigent and
for tens of millions of uninsured persons is beyond the scope
of any single county even though counties are the lead
agencies for indigent health care. The lack of a national
consensus on health policies will create a larger and more
critical situation in our country in the years
cannot sustain policymaking under a chaos theory or throwing
large quantities of money and noise at a problem such as
happened initially in the response to the Sept.11 attacks. How
many FEMA auditors does one city or county have to be involved
with while trying to recover from a disaster?
city in Florida has had the dubious opportunity to work with
six different auditors retained by FEMA just in the matter of
relatively minor damage from Hurricane Katrina, not counting
FEMA turnover. This situation is enough to make city staff
seek Employee Assistance Program treatment for clinical
What are some things we can do to
improve a response to things which lie ahead?
approach is to have the federal government move further away
from direct administration of programs and become, instead, a
"Superfunder" of regional and intergovernmental
Create incentives for improving
fire services or indigent health services. Provide incentives
for hundreds of thousands of medical students, nursing
students, and others who are often deeply in debt to work off
their debt as employees of local governments as well as the
military or the National Health Service.
HR Doctor has proposed an array of other suggestions on the
health care front in prior articles.
Create a Cabinet-level Department
of Local Government Partnership with strict limits on the
departments staff size and budget but with one fundamental
mission: to make the federal governments connections with
school boards, cities, counties and special districts more
efficient and more nimble.
may find that programs such as the Cooperative Extension
Service have at least as much in common with such a new
department as it does with the Department of
same is true with future public transit solutions. Mass
transit may be better supported in a government partnership
department than in the Department of
This article is not the best
format for seriously exploring a rethinking of
intergovernmental relations. However, hopefully, it makes a
very small statement that gets other people thinking. Enough
people thinking and creating will generate the answers to how
we can meet the lurking monsters ahead.
Just look over the horizon and
you can see them. Our choice is to apply our amazing
creativity to anticipate and prevent natural and self
inflicted disasters, or to increasingly squander our wealth,
our energies, and our future potential by waiting for the
disasters to attack us and then defend ourselves by whining
and creating new reality TV shows.
Perhaps a good start could be a
NACo-sponsored colloquium in which all participants must wear
powdered wigs to invoke the spirit of the founding
HR Doctor wishes us all a dry and safe end to the Atlantic
The HR Doctor