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The Federal Continuity Crisis

The April/May/June 2012 print issue of PA TIMES published a series of articles on the topic of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery. The piece below is part  of a Student Symposia from that issue.

Paul Beach

The federal government has a continuity crisis. It is in a race against time to finish building a massive government continuity management program before the next major test of the system. The challenge for planners is that the test–like the previous test on 9/11–will be unscheduled and unplanned. The failure of that infamous test started two major ground wars, as well as the global ongoing war on terror, the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and the mortgaging of a future generation.

To appreciate the challenges that continuity planners face, one must consider the perspective of “before and after.” Before the attack, the country was enjoying a sense of peace and prosperity that the end of the Cold War had promised. Even though terrorists had attacked the homeland before, the national psyche remained undeterred. After the attack, shock and disbelief took over. The thought of an obscure, terrorist organization using hijacked planes to produce tremendous carnage had left Americans numb. The military suffered an embarrassing defeat by the most unsophisticated, low-tech adversary that was conceivable. Our world had changed overnight.

[The federal government] is in a race against time to finish building a massive government continuity management program before the next major test of the system. The challenge for planners is that the test…will be unscheduled and unplanned.

The System Was Blinking Red
The shortcomings were laid bare to the world with the release of the 9/11 Commission Report. We discovered that key decision-makers were unable to communicate among themselves, or collect accurate information from the various agencies that were all tracking pieces of the scenario as it unfolded. Upon reading the analysis, it becomes evident that many of these bureaucratic problems might still be with us today had it not been for the attack. A small sample of some of the key problems are provided:

  • The military command-and-control system was still focused outward on defending the nation from waves of Soviet bombers instead of airliners taking off from American airports.
  • Even though information existed about the plot, the intelligence collection agencies were not collaborating to fuse the data into one common operating picture.
  • Federal inter-agency communications were not streamlined enough to allow vital information to flow between agencies such as the FAA, DoD and the FBI.
  • The presidential Line of Succession (LOS) and Continuity of Government (COG) plans were not designed to respond to an attack of this nature. Critical command and control decisions were disrupted due to communication difficulties and poor planning.

A common refrain repeated in the commission report was government agencies lacked a “unity of effort” and complete interoperability throughout the government. What was needed was a multi-agency, multi-level and multi-jurisdictional approach between the public and private sectors for continuity of operations.

As required by the National Continuity Implementation Plan (NCIP) of 2007, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are diligently implementing the nation’s new continuity policy. Most of the focus has been administrative as FEMA coordinates the rewrite and conversion of hundreds of federal, state, tribal and local agency continuity of operations plans (COOP).

The new continuity policy supports inter-agency cooperation and builds a loose organization of continuity stakeholders. All of the major federal departments and agencies that contribute to the COOP and COG plans have full-time continuity managers. These professionals meet monthly to discuss issues affecting the management of the program. Creation of a new bureaucracy is nothing new for the federal government, so…what’s the crisis?

What many don’t see happening is the creation of a new continuity culture.

A New Direction
Gone are the old days when COOP and COG plans were seen as static ideas that sat on the shelf collecting dust. Now, COOP and COG plans are considered dynamic processes that require continuous management and full-time staffs dedicated to its success. This modern approach leverages all of the capabilities of all of the stakeholders in a simultaneous and coordinated effort. The military has long referred to his type of synergy as a “force multiplier.”

Cultural change at the federal level typically progresses at a glacial pace. The process always meets resistance because of the displacement it causes for the people and processes that have been there for years. Often in government, emergency management (EM) agendas will divert resources from other vital programs. This can create an adversarial relationship for EM practitioners and the leadership of those organizations that were counting on the diverted resources. Those organizational leaders that have a negative view of the EM profession are sensitive to the new continuity culture and may view it as an impending turf battle. The irony of this is not lost on the EM practitioners who are working hard to protect the very organizations that resist them.

Today, most federal agencies are headquartered in Washington, DC, a city with notorious traffic and transportation limitations. These issues may create physical challenges for the relocation of principal members of government to COOP facilities outside of the National Capitol Region (NCR) during a continuity event. The NCR has experienced multiple events in recent memory that have exposed the federal government’s vulnerability to the effects of disruptive events like natural disasters. Congress addressed this issue with the Telework Act of 2010.

This legislation is designed to provide organizational leaders in the federal government with additional flexibility for the management of their employees in a COOP event. The Telework Act enables employees tasked with the continuation of Primary Mission Essential Functions (PMEF), to work remotely via phone and Internet connection from an alternate location, if their primary work site is inaccessible.

Success of the new cultural shift is not assured. Organizational leaders that have been given the tools to help facilitate the conversion may see any effort on their part to be counter-intuitive. Is DHS doing enough to develop buy-in from reticent stakeholders? The price of another failure could be embarrassing headlines, political fallout and the potential loss of funding for future continuity programs. Antagonists of the new continuity policy would not hesitate to exploit any window of opportunity that a public failure of the system would afford them.

The challenge of changing the culture of government to function as a unified and interoperable organization is still present. The crisis faced by the federal government is the success of this effort is limited by the self-interests of the organizations that oppose anything EM-related. It is a battle within. Absent a sense of urgency to move the process along, the nation could experience stagnation. There is almost a sense that the United States is living on borrowed time and if a major COOP or COG event did occur in the NCR, an all-hazards response capability may still elude us.

The government has made advances towards interoperability, as was demonstrated by the improved responses to major disasters since the Hurricane Katrina debacle. It’s a safe assumption–resisting EM efforts to improve response and recovery capabilities will not be tolerated in the post-9/11 era. It is the preparedness and mitigation functions of EM, which are components of COOP and COG, that experience the heaviest resistance.

Shortsighted leaders will predictably choose to protect resources that contribute directly to their primary mission, instead of investing in mitigation and preparedness measures that ensure greater resiliency of the organization over time. Have we learned from our mistakes or are we only learning to exploit negative outcomes? History continues to teach us that the consequences of short sightedness have predictably bad results.

Paul Beach is a graduate student in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University. Email: [email protected]gov

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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