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Book Provides Lessons on Managing Emergencies and Strengthening Homeland Security

By Stephen Barr
Monday, October 30, 2006

In March 1964, a great earthquake shattered homes, harbors, roads, and water and sewer systems in Alaska, destroying communities vital to the state's economic life. Without significant rebuilding before the winter freeze, officials feared, citizens would be forced to flee to the lower 48 states.

But only four months after the quake, which had registered 9.2 on the Richter scale, a remarkable recovery was underway in Alaska. The White House had set up a reconstruction commission headed by a senator and run by a senior federal career official. The unusual legislative-executive branch arrangement put speed and muscle into the disaster recovery project.

The Alaska reconstruction stands in stark contrast to the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina four decades later, of course. The account of the Alaska response, in a just-released book by the National Academy of Public Administration, reinforces widely held perceptions that the government is unable to draw on past experiences and is at risk of losing its ability to perform effectively, especially in times of crisis.

The academy is a nonprofit corporation chartered by Congress to provide advice to government agencies, and academy fellows have written "Meeting the Challenge of 9/11: Blueprints for More Effective Government" with an eye toward providing lessons for policymakers, especially officials at the Department of Homeland Security.

The department, formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has shown that "reorganization is not a cure of poor coordination and can make matters worse, at least during the shake-down period," Thomas H. Stanton , the book's editor, writes in an introduction.

Strengthening homeland security, the book says, will require federal officials to look beyond traditional turf boundaries and pull together state and local governments and the private sector to tackle common and complex problems.

Two other themes emerge in the 352-page book: that the government needs to focus on training and rewarding managers for operating across organizational boundaries and that it must pay more attention to the design and management of agencies and programs.

Contributors to the book are former federal officials and scholars, including Murray Comarow , Alan L. Dean , Dwight Ink and Ronald C. Moe , who write on management issues; Beryl A. Radin , on organizational performance; Dan Guttman , on holding government contractors accountable; and Cindy Williams , on overhauling the military personnel system.

Dean and Ink discuss the importance of having a senior official in large agencies focused on management issues -- such as accounting and finance, procurement, personnel, technology and property. They point to the undersecretary of management in the Department of Homeland Security as the kind of post that can help a Cabinet secretary succeed in pulling together internal operations.

As part of their review of the undersecretary's job at Homeland Security, they recommend that the department ensure the job, which will probably be held by a political appointee, has a sidekick from the career ranks who can provide continuity during presidential transitions.

Dean and Ink also contend that too many jobs in the Homeland Security undersecretary's office have been reserved for political appointees. "With respect to fighting terrorism overseas, there is recognition of the value of depending on professional career military leaders who serve under a small number of political policy leaders in Washington. Why should professional career leadership be any less critical for protecting our homeland against terrorism?" they ask.

They add, "It is essential that the management of homeland security not be politicized."

That, however, appears to be happening. Members of Congress have questioned whether the position of undersecretary is needed at Homeland Security, in part because the deputy secretary has a strong hand in day-to-day operations. Congress also has cut funding requests for the undersecretary's office, usually to reorder priorities. (Only one person has ever held the undersecretary position, and she left in May.)

Moe offers a broader perspective on government organization, contending that the president needs an office of federal management, in part to counter perceptions "that somehow he isn't managing the store."

His research, Moe writes, shows "the core departments and agencies are in many instances 'hollow,' with an over-reliance upon third parties to perform both operational and management responsibilities."

The Office of Management and Budget, which faces the annual task of producing a federal budget, "is simply not equipped to perform the [management] tasks required of it," Moe concluded. He calls on the president and Congress to take a "necessary first step" by splitting up the OMB to create "an essentially nonpartisan" office dedicated to ensuring competent federal management.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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