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May 05, 2008
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Hurricanes, Earthquakes and Floods, Oh My!

Attending a professional conference is an important part of career learning and growth.  It offers networking opportunities. It offers chances to hear from subject-matter experts. It also offers thoughtful opportunities to consider your own situation in light of what you hear from other attendees about what is going on in other organizations. Then, of course, there is the chance to meet vendors and collect dozens of stress balls, pens and other toys.

The HR Doctor has just returned from the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando, Fla. and everything described above applies. But, the most significant “take-aways” go far beyond how to mitigate disaster and manage critical incidents such as floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. 

They are the gleanings of quiet moments in the back, generally near the exits, considering what was said in one context, such as dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but realizing that the themes were more universal and apply in many areas of public administration. Here are some of my key observations. Perhaps some of them will save unnecessary travel expenses, even if it means not adding to your stress ball collection.

Federalism at issue

Like many national conferences involving government, one of the key issues was the reconsideration of federalism. The National Hurricane Conference, as you might expect, was full of chatter about the role of FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, the National Guard and the private not-for-profit sector. 

Many of the presenters were retired FEMA employees who have found a new avocation in teaching seminars and putting up with the constant barrage of local government officials discussing their many “crawling over broken glass” experiences with FEMA. 

In the variety of conference sessions, there was relatively little mention of state governments. In fact, this is really one of the HR Doctor’s major themes in recent years — the re-direction of federalism away from what the founding fathers intended.

State governments are suffering from a serious identity crisis. They don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. They don’t quite realize that they’re not in the 18th century anymore. State governments used to be the center of the universe in the development of the United States. Now that local governments, and especially counties and cities, are active “go-to” places where direct citizen services are provided, states are having an increasing problem with determining what role they should play. 

Perhaps this is the reason why every session of a State Legislature makes cities, counties and professional associations such as NACo go on maximum alert. Legislatures seem to be searching for ways to inflict additional burdens and obstacles on local governments which already have a difficult role providing direct citizen services.

States are often quick to attack local government revenue sources, especially property taxes. They seek to show that they completely support the understandable frustrations of taxpayers by hacking away at a source of revenue which is not anywhere near as vital to their own level of government as it is to others.

Unfunded mandates continue to roll downhill from the halls of state government, landing in piles of conflicts and service delivery problems at the feet of local government administrators.

States — who needs them?

The new reality of federalism is that state governments are too small to have the kind of impact they secretly wish they could have on large problems. Examples include regulation of multinational corporations, improving a deteriorating climate and degraded environment, creating a separate foreign policy and handling problems such as terrorism, pandemics and other issues which do not line up in sync with political boundaries.

Just as the state is too small to deal with large problems, it is increasingly too large to deal with smaller problems such as helping particular individuals improve specific qualities of their lives. It is simply not the state level of government that provides the day-to-day ongoing interaction with medically indigent adults, the mentally ill, the homeless and the economically disadvantaged, for example — nor the huge variety of other programs which are at the core of what local government is all about.

The HR Doctor spent half of his career in California as a chief administrative officer and a human resources director. It was occasionally necessary to travel to the state capital to attempt, usually in vain, to help turn aside some zealot state legislator’s efforts to torture local government.  That experience made me understand better why many state capitals seem to be tucked away as far as possible from the large centers of the state populations.

Local government — best for access

The larger examples include Sacramento, Calif.; Tallahassee, Fla.; Albany, N.Y. and others. Local government is the level closest to the people. It is the level where a frustrated citizen can seek direct action by visiting with a responsible decision maker in-person. The location of state government capitals represents a metaphor for the fact that travel, frustration and large commitments of time, money and energy are required to try to maneuver through a state government bureaucracy. The location of some of the state capitals may, in fact, also be a metaphor for the increasing “distance” separating the state level of government from its local affected citizens.

Hurricane Conference blows off state governments

At the Hurricane Conference, much of the discussion seemed to skip over state levels of government.  It was direct local-to-federal contact and vice versa. Apparently, when the most acute and dangerous moments in the life of the citizens takes place, the local government is the champion, the federal government is the source of hope and help, and the states are in the hallway trying to find members of the press to pose for photos.

This analysis may be overly dramatic, and is certainly one with which many of our state friends would take great issue. However, for the many local government officials attending the Hurricane Conference who have direct experience dealing one-on-one with the residents affected by catastrophe, the state government’s search for an identity becomes quite apparent. 

Expectations conflict

The second clear theme to emerge as an underlying issue was a very strong series of conflicts over expectations. A large number of citizens seem to feel that despite all of the pre-disaster warnings issued and mostly ignored, all the chatter about having a personal hurricane plans or stocking up on water, three days of food, extra medicine, finding escape routes, etc., it is just easier to abdicate personal responsibility because we expect others to take care of us. Those are unrealistic expectations in time of mass disaster, but they are widespread and strongly held by the citizenry. 

Local government will fail if it doesn’t get my electricity back up, my streets cleared, my trash service begun immediately and perhaps most importantly, my cable television restored, so I don’t miss a single episode of Jerry Springer or Dancing With The Stars. It doesn’t matter whether it is not even within local government’s authority, as with power company or cable or satellite television services. Citizens have expectations and make demands which local governments, whether they are the huge city of New York, or tiny Ascension Parish, La., cannot meet.

The same is often true for local government expectations about the behavior and responsibilities of their own insurance providers or FEMA itself.

The purpose of insurance is not to build the new courthouse. It is to provide some but not all of the help to bring that flooded police station back to the condition it was prior to the flood. FEMA’s job is not to provide a new community infrastructure. It is to be an asset for local governments to return, as much as possible, to a functional civil society as existed before the earthquake or hurricane struck. 

Yet some in local government expect FEMA to build that new courthouse or to replace the vehicle fleet that was damaged. They expect FEMA to manage the process by which a city like New Orleans, with much of it below sea level or in a flood zone, can again return to a situation where replacement buildings are put up at the wrong place with few if any mitigation measures taken. 

FEMA also labors under some unreasonable expectations. It expects that local governments will correctly fill out all of the massive quantities of federal paperwork, take GPS readings and digital photos of every single tree, and be ready to meet, head-on, with no complaints and total subservience, all of the requirements of the hordes of federal auditors before any money flows into the area.

Even then, months, or, as residents of Florida can testify, years can go by before actions are visible. In some cases, this clash of expectations results in a situation analogous to the meeting of elephants in mating season: There is loud high-level trumpeting and much contact but nothing happens for two years. FEMA is in a fundamentally no-win situation just as local governments are. The situation represents a disaster within a disaster.

We live in a society of unreasonable expectations that give rise to full employment for lawyers, credit cards available for all, subprime mortgages available on the Internet and on television, and the rise of companies willing to help manage the debts and shattered dreams and hopes that go along with the clash of expectations. That clash was very evident in the discussions at the Hurricane Conference just as it might be around your dinner table on those increasingly rare evenings when you and people you love, such as your children and your spouse, get together to discuss your family situation. 

Search for scapegoats

Another theme to be covered in this article is a common component of every crisis and every disaster in our society. It is the search for a scapegoat. When individuals fail to plan properly for their own safety and things go terribly wrong, there is an immediate chorus of whining and of finding someone, some organization or something to blame.

Our imperative to find a scapegoat is driven and accelerated by the frenzy generated by a mass media industry run amok. It thrives on the reporting and the creation of crisis, chaos and apparent public policy failures. Author Finley Peter Dunne’s notion that the job of the press is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable, needs some 21st century amending. The role of the media appears now to be to create the affliction and then report on the effects as though they were not in any way responsible. 

The final strategic point orbiting over the Hurricane Conference and, in a larger sense, hovering over the entire role of local government administrators was the fact that this conference was attended by hundreds of highly dedicated, very knowledgeable, and, likely, very undervalued professionals. They sacrifice time with their families for the sake of their commitment to public service. They enjoy camaraderie and a sense of fraternity and sorority.

America is in good hands during these moments of high drama and catastrophe because of the underlying dedication of the people encountered by the HR Doctor at the Hurricane Conference — even if we make their jobs more difficult by the way we behave and present our expectations.

Phil Rosenberg

The HR Doctor •


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