Wednesday, August 08, 2007

More NRF: The Fur Flies

Today's Washington Post reports on some significant backlash regarding the new, draft National Response Framework (NRF) that I mentioned a couple of days ago:

A decision by the Bush administration to rewrite in secret the nation's emergency response blueprint has angered state and local emergency officials ...

State and local officials in charge of responding to disasters say that their input in shaping the National Response Plan was ignored in recent months by senior White House and Department of Homeland Security officials ...

"In my 19 years in emergency management, I have never experienced a more polarized environment between state and federal government," said Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma's emergency management chief and president of a national association of state emergency managers.

Bruce Baughman, Ashwood's predecessor as president of the National Emergency Management Association and a 32-year veteran of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that a draft of the revised plan released to state officials last week marks a step backward because its authors did not set requirements or consult with field operators nationwide who will use it to request federal aid, adjust state and county plans, and train workers.

"Where's the beef?" asked Baughman, who is Alabama's emergency management chief. "I don't have any problems with a framework . . . but it's not a plan . . . and it's not national. Who are we fooling here?"

Collaboration - real collaboration - always ought to be an exercise in mutual interest and trust. Has the collaborative process guiding the NRP revision been based on this principle - or has it been a more formal, perfunctory exercise?

In this kind of process with multiple players at multiple levels, you have to expect some bureaucratic battles - it's not possible to create a plan that will please everyone, after all - but the acrimony between DHS and states is stronger than I'd expect. And for the wrong reasons.

Specifically, the following is disappointing:
DHS spokeswoman Laura Keehner said that state and local officials were included earlier in the decision-making process, but that an initial draft they produced with FEMA and DHS preparedness officials in May "did not meet expectations." The initial collaboration resulted in what several federal officials familiar with the process described as a convoluted version that sought to satisfy too many constituencies and re-fought old bureaucratic battles.
So DHS just set all that work aside and went ahead unilaterally? Apparently so.
"Coordination between state and local governments and the feds . . . seems to be getting worse rather than better," said Timothy Manning, head of emergency management in New Mexico and a member of a DHS-appointed steering committee that initially worked on the emergency plan before being shut out of the deliberations in May.

Federal officials, Ashwood said, appear to be trying to create a legalistic document to shield themselves from responsibility for future disasters and to shift blame to states. "It seems that the Katrina federal legacy is one of minimizing exposure for the next event and ensuring future focus is centered on state and local preparedness," he said.
DHS offers a different rationale for editing and simplifying the plan:
DHS Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson, who is preparing the new draft with Joel Bagnal, the White House deputy assistant for homeland security, said in May that the old plan was "impenetrable" and that a rewrite was necessary so that "people can use it and train to it and understand it at a governor's level, at a mayor's level, at the level of a congressman."
This is quite revealing. In my mind it suggests a basic question: Who is the audience for the new NRF? Is it mayors, governors and congresspeople; or is it experienced emergency managers and response personnel?

It's true that it would take quite a bit of training and operational experience to be able to implement the NRP effectively in an emergency. And the fact that it was released only a few months before Katrina did us absolutely no favors.

Yet despite the NRP's bulk - 426 pages - and apparent "impenetrability," experienced emergency managers would have noticed quite a bit of shared DNA between the
NRP (full text) and the 304-page Clinton-era Federal Response Plan (full text). In reading and implementing the NRP, these emergency managers would not have been starting from zero. In any discipline, an experienced person can much more quickly understand a technical document that appears impenetrable to a person who lacks experience and training in that discipline.

I've only skimmed the early draft of the NRF; but the DHS comments above and below, as well as my own impressions, seem to indicate that the primary audience for the new NRF seems not to be emergency managers, but people outside the emergency management field.

The NRF is clearly a significant mutation from the old plans:

The new draft, which was released publicly only after it was leaked to Congressional Quarterly, states that it is a simplified but "essential playbook" that describes various responsibilities of government executives, private-sector business and nongovernmental leaders and operators. Acknowledging that its directives exceed current capabilities, however, the framework commits the federal government to developing later actual strategic and operational plans.

Bush officials add that state, local and private-sector partners will get their say during a 30-day review when the plan is formally released later this year.
Okay, then. Operational details are forthcoming...

Still, the big question here has to do with the process rather than the product(s).
By what process will these forthcoming strategic and operational plans be developed? If DHS repeats the process they've employed so far, they would seem to be asking for trouble.

WaPo gives John Harrald the last word, and he hits the nail on the head:
John R. Harrald, a professor at George Washington University's Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, cautioned that shutting out state and local voices during the plan's preparation would be ill-advised. He said that the administration appears "to be guided by a desire to ensure centralized control of what is an inherently decentralized process. . . . Response to catastrophic events requires collaboration and trust in a broad network of organizations."
Yes indeed.

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