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November 14, 2005
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

The Disaster within a Disaster - A Call to Action!

The current model by which the public’s 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.

An 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.

It 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.

The Constitution also has another default besides compromise. That is the default to modification by evolution rather than revolution.

The 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 anesthetics.

We are seeing, however, a series of world changes in this decade which challenge the ability of the federal system in the years ahead.

The 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 lie ahead.

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.

The 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 own.

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 simultaneously.

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.

In three decades of public experience, including service as the chief administrative officer of a county government, as well as critical incident management, the HR Doctor’s 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.

On 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.

All 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 Doctor’s book Don’t Walk by Something Wrong! for some additional perspective on the issue of federal and intergovernmental reform. Here are some more examples:

How 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 redundancies.

The 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 bureaucracy.

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 ahead.

We 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?

One 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 depression.

What are some things we can do to improve a response to things which lie ahead?

One approach is to have the federal government move further away from direct administration of programs and become, instead, a "Superfunder" of regional and intergovernmental innovations.

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.

The 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 department’s staff size and budget but with one fundamental mission: to make the federal government’s connections with school boards, cities, counties and special districts more efficient and more nimble.

We 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 Agriculture.

The same is true with future public transit solutions. Mass transit may be better supported in a government partnership department than in the Department of Transportation.

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 fathers.

The HR Doctor wishes us all a dry and safe end to the Atlantic Hurricane Season!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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