The GAO released a report today that examines the Coast Guard’s heroic performance in the response to Hurricane Katrina, with the goal of uncovering lessons that might be relevant to entities elsewhere in government:
Of the estimated 60,000 people left stranded by Hurricane Katrina, over 33,500 were saved by the Coast Guard. Precisely identifying why the Coast Guard was able to respond as it did may be difficult, but underpinning these efforts were factors such as the agencyâ€™s operational principles. These principles promote leadership, accountability, and enable personnel to take responsibility and action, based on relevant authorities and guidance. Another key factor was the agencyâ€™s reliance on standardized operations and maintenance practices that provided greater flexibility for using personnel and assets from any operational unit for the response. Up-to-date and regularly exercised hurricane plans were also keyâ€”preserving Coast Guard personnel and resources first, so they could then respond to search and rescue, marine environmental protection, and facilitation of commerce needs after the storm.
Later in the report, the authors list seven bedrock principles at the Coast Guard that facilitated mission performance:
- The Principle of Clear Objective directs every operation toward a clearly defined and attainable objective.
- The Principle of Effective Presence requires that the right assets and capabilities be at the right place at the right time.
- The Principle of Unity of Effort describes the performance of cooperative operational objectives, by working in concert with different Coast Guard units and coordinating these efforts with a diverse set of governmental and nongovernmental entities.
- The Principle of On-Scene Initiative involves Coast Guard personnel being given latitude to act quickly and decisively within the scope of their authority, without waiting for direction from higher levels in the chain of command.
- The Principle of Flexibility describes how the Coast Guard pursues multiple missions with the same people and assets by adjusting to a wide variety of tasks and circumstances.
- The Principle of Managed Risk involves two dimensions: First, the commander is obligated to ensure that units are properly trained, equipped, and maintained, and second, the commander is obligated to assess the crew and equipment capabilities against the operational situation to determine whether and how to execute a mission.
- The Principle of Restraint reflects the obligation of Coast Guard personnel to act with good judgment and treat American citizens and foreign visitors with dignity.
The report also notes that the Coast Guard has done a good job of compiling its Katrina “lessons-learned”, incorporating a series of after-action reports into a Coast Guard preparedness database.
There are many lessons in this story for the rest of DHS, other federal agencies, state & local governments, and even the private sector – this story should be taught as a case study in business schools.
For example, the “Principle of On-Scene Initiative” is precisely what was needed (as I’ve argued previously) inso many other aspects of the initial response to Katrina, where people on the ground were unable to act due to a hierarchical chain-of-command. And this principle is in direct contradiction to the hierarchial “National Security Approach” recommended for emergency management in the Townsend Report on Katrina.
And the “Principle of Flexibility” should be inculcated into all parts of DHS. Too many parts of its constituent agencies still have a “this is my job and I’m sticking to it” attitude, rather than striving for a more unified DHS that harnesses natural complementarities among agencies’ activities.