Last week the Secretary of Homeland Secretary presented awards recognizing, “the work, sacrifice, and professional excellence of employees from components all across the Department of Homeland Security. [Individuals who] performed above and beyond the call of duty, responding in extraordinary ways to the challenges of protecting the homeland.”
The DHS website provides quick profiles of several team-based and a few individual awards.
Most of the awards focus on success addressing a specific problem and most of the problems are component-specific (i.e. involving only one agency). But of eight award categories, one addresses “unity of effort“.
Three of the awards given in this category relate to a National Special Security Event (e.g. papal visit), one on a public-private effort at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, one on Southern border operations, and one on Ebola response.
The Ebola team honored especially caught my attention:
Aaron Firoved, Ph.D., Office of Health Affairs
Captain David Lau, ICE
Mallory Lowe, FEMA
Jamie Johnson, FEMA
Elizabeth Harman, FEMA
Jeremy Guthrie, FEMA
Mike Turner, OIA
Pedro Bordatto, TSA
Last year most of the Ebola related news focused on actions by the Centers for Disease Control or Department of Defense. But behind the scenes even more was happening. CBP developed new policies for enhanced airport screening. Several DHS components were involved in responding or preparing to respond.
The team honored last week was involved in policy/strategy development. But as important they were charged with a proactive, coordinated reach-out across DHS and with state, local, tribal and private sector colleagues to communicate the situation, problems, and opportunities. I am told this group became a trusted go-to source within the Department for timely and accurate information, especially when the immediate answer was the dreaded, “I don’t know.”
This is a communications role seldom sought out within the public sector and like-wise across the culture. There is often an expectation for expert and authoritative information, even–especially–in the midst of an emerging crisis. The messenger can be damned regardless of what s/he does or doesn’t. (If you need to be reminded of the epidemic potential for paranoid criticism just google “fema ebola”.)
A friend who came to depend on the team told me, “It really was less about what they communicated and more how they communicated. Often they had bad news or no news, but they were receptive, responsive, and proactive in trying to trace what they did not know and getting back with whatever they had. This encouraged ongoing exchange and increased institutional confidence. It may have even increased competence.”
(But even this good example and the award does not allow my friend to feel sufficiently empowered to be named as a source. She admits trust-building takes two and she is not–yet–ready to do her part.)
Critical thinking is usually a very productive skill. A great deal of critical thinking was applied to last year’s Ebola crisis. What I perceive this task-team was able to do is complement the critical thinking with creative thinking. They generated new capacity by using the questions they received to “learn-from-artful-searching”, “give particular attention to strengths” that could be found within DHS or across the whole-of-government, while inviting DHS personnel to “create new ways to pursue… a positive future.” (The quotes are from Appreciative Inquiry by Frank Barrett and Ronald Fry.)
The Secretary expressed his appreciation for their appreciative approach.