“In any disaster, there are operations and politics—it’s stupid to deny that both don’t go on steroids when disaster strikes. It is also naïve to believe that the two can be neatly separated. The Venn Diagram will always show an overlap. The best way to mange the friction between the operational and the political is to have a leader experienced in both worlds—a skilled practitioner who knows how things are supposed to work and understands the politics of disaster—read Thad Allen. And they have to get the politics part right—not that they should practice politics. They should in fact be scrupulously non-partisan, but they must skilled at dealing with politicians.”
James Carafano, Assistant Director of the Heritage Foundation’s Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, Security Debrief blog.
Mr. Carafano makes the above observation in a blog post bemoaning the current DHS interpretation of the concept of the Principal Federal Officer (PFO) in responding to major disasters. Carafano hears that instead of appointing the Thad Allen-types to lead a response to big events, the Secretary of the Department will assume the role. This might be inside-the-beltway nitpicking (if you are a resident, responder, or local elected leader do you care about the designation of the official coordinating federal support?) or it could have real-world implications. To be honest, having no operational experience I am not convinced either way.
However, I am certain about the importance of a concept that Carafano gingerly skates around–politics. To emphasize the non-partisan nature of what he is suggesting, Carafano states”they have to get the politics part right—not that they should practice politics.” I believe that to get the politics part right, the people entrusted to coordinate future responses to large events have to be very good at practicing politics.
Politics has become a dirty word, immediately bringing to mind bitter partisan disputes and decisions made not on the basis of what is best for the community (impacted by a large event in the terms I am discussing) but for electoral or personal advantage. Instead, I am referring to definitions provided by Merriam-Webster:
1a. the art or science of government.
3a. competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership.
5a. the total complex of relations between people living in society.
Relations and competition does not necessarily have to translate into Blue-Red electoral wrestling. It is also a part of general human interaction and a vital part of what must me managed during any incident. The larger the event, the more complex the range of interactions, relationships, and competing interests. Successful management of these facets are as important as the operational details of any response, and sometimes they are the parts that influence the narrative of events. Consider the BP oil spill, about which the former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at DHS Juliette Kayyem writes:
In hindsight, it’s clear to me that there were two different responses to the spill — one political, one operational. Despite some fits and starts, the operational response largely worked. But it was the political response that garnered so much attention, and seemed so disconnected from what was going on day-to-day operationally. What happened last summer was that the ground rules that had guided oil-spill responses for two decades were exposed as politically infeasible — even though it was those ground rules that guided the entire response from start to finish.
THE MEMORY of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the same region that was threatened by the oil spill, created additional political burdens. The Oil Pollution Act demanded payments and cleanups, but not much else. It was all designed before Hurricane Katrina, which showed that public expectations of what the government ought to do far exceeded any traditional notion of emergency response. That the media began calling the spill “Obama’s Katrina’’ only intensified the political imperative: It was not enough to clean up the oil; the Gulf had to come back stronger and better.
The Gulf governors found the post-Exxon Valdez ground rules unrealistic as well. Under the law, states were required to work with the Coast Guard and the industry to plan an Area Contingency Plan, a mutual agreement by all parties about what response techniques would be used in the event of a major spill. Not one of the Gulf governors — all of them Republican, at least two potentially running against President Obama in 2012 — would accept that his own experts had signed off on plans that, essentially, they no longer liked in the harsh light of day.
IN A democracy, any disaster is inherently political. This isn’t a criticism. The administration did, in my view, what any compassionate and concerned administration ought to do; the governors would similarly defend themselves. And maybe first responders are too quick to criticize elected officials for involving themselves in major disasters; leadership is what we elect them for. They can assign blame, demand resources, and channel popular outrage in a way a by-the-book field response cannot.
Real partisan politics mixes with the general exercise of political practice–this is the case no matter the event or political party in power. Management of these dynamics requires not the application of an ideological point of view but the exercise of political skills that balances power dynamics, competition for scarce resources, and complex social arrangements. This is true in response to a major event as it is in leading a team of people in an office.