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Half-Full, Half-Empty or Too Big

July 18, 2012

I had lunch with an old friend on Tuesday. Like me, he was trained first as an engineer then as a public administrator, and spent most of his career working for the fire service in local government. He recently retired to accept a new position with a Fortune 100 company.

Over a very nice lunch, we discussed our common interests and experiences of feeling more than a bit disillusioned of late with the career we had chosen. Still passionate about public service, my friend noted that few of our colleagues seemed to be aware that the situation in which they find themselves these days is very much of their own making.

By the end of our conversation, the topic had shifted from work to life in general. My friend is Iranian. His parents sent him to the U.S. as a boy of sixteen to study out of fear for his safety if he stayed in his homeland after the Shah was deposed. (My friend, like me, tends to be more than a little outspoken, a trait his father feared would mark him with the authorities.) When he finished college, he helped his parents emigrate to the U.S. to join him.

His observations about the state of affairs in the Middle East and the U.S. role shaping the changes in his native land intrigued me. We agreed that the situation in which the U.S. finds itself with Iran and so many other hostile states in the region is largely of our own making.

It occurred to me later that the U.S. and firefighters have a lot in common this way. They both think pretty highly of themselves. They both know they have flaws, but do not seem to see them reflected when they look at themselves in a mirror. Many firefighters and many U.S. leaders alike take their influence for granted. They presume they deserve the respect and admiration of others to such an extent that they have difficulty understanding why anyone does not revere them, much less give them everything for which they ask.

As the U.S. looks upon the situation in the Middle East, what they see situations adapting according to their own rules and needs, not our national will. To be certain, people in many Arab nations are embracing democratic principles, pluralism and tolerance, values we purport to cherish. But not universally.

In many of these nations, democracy is not simply a question of individual liberty and respect for human rights. Achieving a balance of power means something much more difficult and delicate there than it does here. Balance must be achieved not only among co-equal branches of government or between the government, civil society and corporate interests or between secular civil society and competing or conflicting religious traditions and their peculiar institutional strictures and structures, but among all of these, all at once.

Our society can trace its democratic traditions back more than 200 years. Persian society, as just one example, can trace the emergence of democratic ideals in its literature, culture and customs back more than two thousand years. Clearly, we do not have that market cornered.

Whether we are wondering about the future of democracy in the Middle East or the sustainability of local and state government finances in the United States, we have to ask ourselves not only what we see but what perspective gives us the impression we perceive as reality. Not long ago, someone told me an old joke with a slightly new twist: “An optimist looks at the glass and says, ‘It’s half-full!’ A pessimist looks at the same glass and says, ‘It’s half-empty.’ An engineer looks at the glass as well and says, ‘It’s twice as big as it needs to be.'”

As engineers, my friend and I agree about quite a lot, both in respect of the situation in our chosen profession and our view of world affairs. In both cases, we feel obliged to help others see these problems differently. Engineering is not just a way of evaluating alternative solutions to problems, it’s also about the ways we define the problems themselves.

As we parted after our meal, we both left feeling satisfied not only with the quality of the meal we enjoyed, but also with the quality of the company and conversation we shared. Perhaps more importantly, we left one another confident that we just might avoid making matters worse if we’re willing to be patient enough and astute enough and open enough to our own faults to accept the things we cannot change by ourselves.

Fiscal Cliff or Slippery Slope

July 11, 2012

In Washington, D.C., a great deal of discussion surrounds competing conceptions of the fiscal cliff and what, if anything, the government should do to avoid going over it. As I have mentioned repeatedly in recent weeks, many cities around the nation find themselves on a slippery slope toward bankruptcy (or its equivalent) as they confront the lingering effects of the economic crisis and past political decisions by their elected officials.

This week another two California cities sought bankruptcy protection. San Bernardino and Mammoth Lakes join the likes of Stockton and Vallejo.

Such dire fiscal situations are  not limited to California. Public employees in Scranton, Pennsylvania received unwelcome news with their pay packets this week when city leaders kept their promise to unilaterally cut pay to the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour in a desperate bid to meet payroll. This confrontation with public employees unions and among elected officials at city hall follows an arbitrator’s ruling that awarded public safety employees significant compensation increases.

As I read news of these developments, I wondered why these experiences do not seem more salient to others and what, if any, effect they have on the debate in Washington, D.C.

Evidence that they are beginning to influence the policy debate beyond the Beltway is abundant. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was quoted recently as pleading with Capitol Hill to stop sending him federal assistance to pay employees he cannot afford to retain and will have to layoff. At the same time, others around the country are clambering for still more aid in any form they can get it.

Grants to help communities hire law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMTs have existed for a long time, in many different forms. They did not suddenly appear with the fiscal crisis. But what did change was the requirement for local communities to come up with plans to match a portion of the aid they received by sustaining these positions over time. Likewise, grant applications that help jurisdictions avoid layoffs receive priority consideration in making awards without regard for circumstances contributing to these sitiations.

In many instances, this approach creates the same kind of moral hazard that the European Union’s effort to help Greece avoid default. Bailing out a government that made bad decisions and citizens who stand complicit (or in most cases simply sat by and watched) does nothing to correct the situation or prevent it from occurring again. Moreover, it may present an incentive to continue making the sort of bad decisions that led to the crisis in the first place.

Normally, I find little to agree with Gov. Christie and his party about. But from where I sit, he’s right to question whether the federal government is doing anything particularly helpful by sending grant monies to local and state governments for police officers and firefighters they cannot afford.

Interestingly enough, I have seen at least one proposal floated recently to expand AmeriCorps to serve rural communities’ public safety needs. Some local officials rebelled against this notion suggesting without irony that it amounted to little more than socialism in the form of a federal takeover of local service delivery. This criticism, however, ignores the fact that many communities simply cannot attract or retain enough volunteers to meet their own needs even if they can afford to train and equip them. I know many of these same officials would hold their noses and accept money, not people, if they were offered it even though they oppose the taxes used to collect and disburse it.

I am intrigued by the suggestion of an AmericCorps expansion. It appeals to me on several levels. First, it encourages national service without requiring it. Second, it rewards community service by offering educational assistance to young people who commit to a period of national service in an underserved community besides their own. Third, it transforms what might otherwise be a deadweight economic loss into a positive externality by providing kids who are finding themselves priced out of the market for education with an opportunity to earn the money required to earn their degrees. It also manages to do this without forcing kids to compromise by dividing their time and attention between the two tasks — working and studying — at once. By reducing the future debt burden on these young people, it also reduces economic uncertainty and accompanying long-term risk associated with burgeoning student debt.

The idea of offering students education or housing incentives to volunteer as firefighters has long proven successful. It has also proven antithetical to the labor movement who see students stealing living wage jobs from people who neither need nor desire a college education. I might find it easier to accept this argument if I thought communities could afford to hire firefighters on the same terms as current employees but simply chose not to. IT might also be easier to swallow if firefighters in so many communities were not overcompensated for their labor compared to similarly skilled workers, including those engaged in risky occupations.

Many, if not most, other countries employ a two-tiered hiring system for firefighters. In some cases, the entry level positions are held by a combination of working class recuits and conscripts, much like our own military has operated in times past. The officer corps, on the other hand, tends to be stocked with managerial and technical professionals recruited from post-secondary educational institutions, which is most certainly not true of our own local fire service leadership. Many foreign fire service officers possess professional qualifications in engineering or scientific disciplines, which is rarely true here.

If every jurisdiction that enters bankruptcy exits in a fashion similar to Vallejo, such a course of action may not end up being such a bad thing. Somehow, though, I doubt this will be the case. Recent grand jury findings concerning the Orange County Fire Authority’s employee compensation arrangements and operational inefficiencies delivering emergency medical services suggest that particular community did not learn such lessons from their dance-with-economic-death in mid-1990s. (To be fair, their fiscal disaster arose from different circumstances entirely. Nevertheless, they formed the fire authority for the ostensible purpose of avoiding unsustainable fiscal circumstances that already affected many municipalities that depended upon the county for support if not service.)

If federal officials really want to help local communities, creating a win-win like the suggested AmeriCorps expansion just might work. But for that to be the case, local and state officials of both left and right political persuasions will have to lose their fear of their own public employees, abandon ideological posturing about for purely political purposes, and lose their learned  indifference to accepting help that comes with strings attached. Here’s hoping more wake-up before hitting bottom.

Coming Soon to a City Near You

June 27, 2012

If all went as expected last night, Stockton, California is now on its way to becoming the latest and largest American city to seek bankruptcy protection. This news comes a little more than a week after North Las Vegas, Nevada declared a state of emergency in a desperate (and some say illegal) attempt to mitigate financial catastrophe by forcing concessions from its unions. Meanwhile, cities across the nation are preparing to layoff firefighters and police officers, including Detroit, which expects to cut 164 fire department positions in the very near future.

To those cops, firefighters and public safety administrators to whom these headlines do not seem all that shocking, they certainly are depressing. I am not, however, among those in either camp. I know that this too shall pass. The sooner we get started, the sooner things will get better.

Here’s a case in point: A few years ago, Vallejo, California declared bankruptcy. Today, citizens and elected officials alike have renewed pride in their community by investing in new ways of doing business and restoring a shared sense of commitment to one another’s welfare and their city’s future. This vision is grounded in the understanding that the obligations of citizenship extend well beyond paying taxes or voting in elections.

My uncle is among the Vallejo residents who pitched-in, spoke up and helped reinvent this solidly blue-collar community. We’ve spoken at length about his experiences, which have also informed his critically-acclaimed novels and short stories.

Like many of his neighbors, my uncle took up residence in Vallejo over fifteen years ago when the cost of housing drove him out of San Francisco where he worked and Berkeley where he lived. Vallejo was affordable and accessible if not upwardly mobile or particularly happening and hip.

The U.S. Navy’s closure of the Mare Island Shipyard a few years earlier meant the city had already seen its salad days. That said, jobs paying a reasonable wage could be found relatively easily. Median salaries covered the mortgage for modest homes that afforded residents a toehold on a middle-class lifestyle.

As home values began appreciating with the loosening of lending practices, city revenues shot up. People were no wealthier than before. Salaries had not increased all that much, but the ability to live beyond one’s means had.

Mandatory collective bargaining and binding-interest arbitration with public safety employees meant civil servants saw regular and healthy pay increases as city coffers remained full. The year before Vallejo entered bankruptcy, the median firefighter salary and wages (with overtime) exceeded $157,000 and the contract awarded employees a nine percent pay increase. (Most cops were doing even better.) Great work if you can get it, eh? But a hard nut to cover if your citizens’ median household income is around $59,000.

In the years since, housing prices and middle-class incomes from employment in the private sector have both collapsed. Unequipped to respond flexibly like their private sector counterparts, public employers trimmed positions and services until they had no easy choices left.

I am neither anti-employee nor anti-union. But I would like to think I am pro-common sense. And my sense of the situation is that too many cities and their public safety employees are on the same slippery slope Vallejo was. If so, this week’s headlines suggest many are now losing their footing.

The problems confronting public safety agencies and their employee unions is simple: Structural deficits are inevitable when contracts award employees wage and benefit packages whose costs exceed the rate of increase in revenues, often by a rate of three, four or five-to-one. The precipitous decline in property values has only exacerbated and sometimes accelerated the inevitable conflict between what was promised and what is possible.

When public entities enter bankruptcy, employees become creditors. The citizen-owners’ ability to pay determines what creditors will get. And citizens’ willingness to do for themselves determines their future — that of the community as a whole and the employees who once assumed the community depended upon their intervention alone.

Communities across the country are rediscovering their ability to do for themselves what they reckon they cannot do without. What most communities discover after entering the bankruptcy process is that they were not nearly as dependent on firefighters or cops as they once thought.

Even in those few instances where time really makes a critical difference to the ultimate outcome, sudden cardiac arrest for instance, cash-strapped but nevertheless clever communities like San Jose, California are finding ways to mobilize citizens as first responders. CPR-trained citizens can (and do) download a smartphone app that notifies them when a cardiac arrest call is received near them. The app not only alerts them to respond, but also advises the location of the nearest publicly accessible automatic external defibrillator.

The efficacy of this approach is already clear. In a few short months since its release, several citizen “saves” have been documented. Statistical evidence of effectiveness will come in time.

We may not want to encourage people to use this sort of technology to enable them to fight fires or enter dangerous environments to perform rescues without training or protective equipment, but we can take advantage of their proximity and access to technology to inform how public agencies respond.  By doing so, we can clearly achieve improved efficiencies even if we do little to increase effectiveness.

Communities across the country face hard choices. Stockton, Detroit and North Las Vegas share little in common besides their parlous fiscal circumstances. If they are lucky, their citizens will find it increasingly acceptable to reduce their expectations of public servants and increase their expectations of one another.

If public servants want to avoid the inevitable outcome of such a reckoning, their choice is just as clear: Forget about maintaining the status quo and find ways to engage communities, increase efficiency and reduce costs by leveraging not just levying citizens. As more communities confront the harsh realities of their unsustainable fiscal practices and union contracts, it will become clearer to all that communities exist for their own welfare, not that of public employees.

Setting Our Sights Higher: On a Secure and Sustainable Recovery

June 10, 2012

Last week, Republicans hounded President Obama unmercifully for a statement he made during a Friday press conference that suggested, “the private sector is doing fine.” The administration’s efforts to recast these remarks in the context of overall employment growth and economic performance since the start of the recession did little good.

Not long after the President made his remarks, Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, rushed to add his two cents’: “[President Obama] says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Sadly but not surprisingly, both men missed the mark.

To be sure, President Obama does have some pretty solid statistics on his side. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more occupations and most private sector industries have seen sharp drops in employment losses over the past year if not some pretty good gains. And the economy is growing at a rate of about two percent per annum. The same cannot be said for public employment, where job cuts in health and social services, education and general government services continue to climb. Were it not for this drag, economic growth might well be a full percentage point higher.

Romney’s reference to last week’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin was intended to reignite enthusiasm among the base for a rejection of government as the solution to America’s economic woes. What he didn’t mention though was the votes in California that approved pension benefit cuts for public employees in San Jose and San Diego. The notion that those who receive a public paycheck are getting a pretty good deal is not limited to a few disgruntled rust-belt states, and seems to be focused not so much on how many are employed or even what they do but on how well they are being treated compared to the rest of us.

Both men chose incorrectly to emphasize the impacts of recent job data and elections, for better or worse, on cops and firefighters. Interestingly enough, the data suggests these occupations are indeed doing just fine. But the data show just as convincingly that what can be said for public protective services cannot be said of other segments of the public sector vital to our security and prosperity.

When politicians speak of police officers and firefighters, they almost invariably seek to invoke strong emotions, some good and some bad. Those who feel secure, see cops and firefighters as guardians or warriors standing up for the common good, patriotic exemplars of loyalty and dedication to American values. Those who feel less secure, often fear the consequences of losing the protective influence of these public servants or the opportunities to join the middle-class these solidly blue-collar occupations offer many of the less-skilled in our society.

Interestingly enough, teachers, although capable of evoking similarly strong emotions, strike a different chord with the public. Teaching is clearly a profession not an occupation. It requires education and experience to do well. The best teachers inspire as well as inform. The worst take more interest in their status and their subjects than their students’ success.

Although all public sector unions have aligned themselves historically and financially with the political left, those who work for government in the health, education and social service sectors have aligned themselves philosophically with this end of the political spectrum as well. They believe government can and should be a powerful force for good in our society.

Firefighters and cops are not so certain about this. Their rhetoric, individually if not collectively, is often, if not always, far more consistent with the philosophies espoused by the right: Government should stick to its core functions and let markets and individuals sort out and deal with the rest. In many ways, this is little more than a convenient, simple and very straightforward way of saying they want their slice of the government pie first.

Other state and municipal occupations, like city planners, building inspectors, social workers, public health practitioners, traffic engineers, parks and recreation employees, and utility and sanitation workers, require extensive technical or professional education or oversight. And their roles are often overlooked when it comes to considering the impacts of a failing economy on our security and prosperity. (If not for roads, water, sewers and other services, what business would survive?)

Until very recently, it was not at all unusual to see fire and police chiefs rise through the ranks with little or no formal education. These days, more cops come to the job with education than firefighters, but education, and the critical thinking and curiosity it implies, has little to do with individual advancement in either occupation at the lower levels of most organizations.

The story of public sector job losses is striking and stands in stark contrast to the tale told by private sector employment statistics: Public sector jobs that require professional and technical education or experience are under-valued and unemployment in these fields leaves incumbents with few private sector opportunities of comparable worth. Private sector job losses have been largely, although by no means exclusively, concentrated among those with less education or experience. And the cuts to government employment rolls in the health, education and social sectors leave them with fewer opportunities to acquire or advance the ability to compete for future jobs.

Although it pains me to say so, Romney’s partly right: We don’t need more cops and firefighters. Mr. President, it would do you well to acknowledge this, and demonstrate that your administration’s commitment to a secure and sustainable recovery starts with looking after those who need our help most.

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An interesting postscript: Shortly after posting this, I read a summary of Wisonsin Gov. Scott Walker’s remarks on CBS’ Sunday program Face the Nation. In short, Walker disagreed with Romney’s interpretation of the recall results. He suggested his “reforms” were aimed at protecting core public safety programs like police and fire protection. And it’s true that Walker’s legislation repealing collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers exempted police and fire unions. (Not so in other states, like Indiana, that followed his example.) Is this another example of a politician pandering to public safety unions, or is it genuine reform?

Standards of Cover(-up)

May 23, 2012

For weeks now, the Los Angeles Fire Department has been under intense scrutiny for errors in its reporting of response time data. Previously reported figures suggested the department was doing pretty well meeting its response-time targets despite budget cutbacks that affected service levels. However, it later came to light that the methodology for calculating response-time data presented to elected officials was flawed. These flaws included a failure to present the results of models as predictions rather than actual response data and errors in the way response times were measured and performance against targets reported.

When it became clear that the fire department’s responses had been affected by changes in staffing and service levels, the media and elected officials began asking some difficult questions. Unfortunately, most of these questions were precisely the wrong ones.

It’s one thing to ask whether the department is meeting response time targets. It’s another thing entirely to ask whether these targets are meaningful indicators of service performance. Errors in reporting could affect the answer in either case, but the effects would be very different.

In Los Angeles, it’s now clear that the fire department does not meet its stated targets. It should be equally clear that these targets are arbitrary and all but meaningless in the vast majority of cases. (In other words, the Los Angeles Fire Department remains a world-class outfit despite the cuts.) Unfortunately, the latter fact has dawned on very few people despite abundant evidence that the unwelcome answer to the first question is due in large measure to the growing dependence of the community on fire department responses to many low-priority and even non-emergency events where time matters very little if at all.

The expectation that fire departments are there to deal with anything unwelcome or untoward that people encounter when no one else is there to help them has not come about by accident. Firefighters love to be loved (and needed) and have been all too willing to answer these calls without regard to the costs. The controversy in Los Angeles suggests these costs are not just fiscal. The opportunity cost of attending so many low-priority and non-emergency calls is clear: The system cannot meet the performance expected when genuine emergencies arise.

For firefighters the answer is simple: expand capacity. For administrators, that’s simply not an option in these austere times. Sadly, elected officials too rarely take responsibility for the fact that you cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Nearly everybody these days accepts the adage that when it comes to performance, speed, quality and cost matter, but you can only have two of these. This is especially true when it comes to emergency services. The problem is that our expectation of which two we are willing to accept varies a lot depending upon the circumstances.

When it comes to situations that clearly are not time critical, time should not matter. But it does when you confuse it with an indicator of quality. And almost every fire department does just that because they have no idea how to measure quality but they can measure time.

Fire departments are inherently inefficient operations. They operate on two basic premises: 1) no one should ever have to wait for a response and 2) every response should be treated as an emergency until proven otherwise. These two assumptions combine with pernicious effect when it comes to the way we handle 911 calls. And let’s be clear about this 911 is no longer shorthand for “emergency.” These days, about 40 percent of all calls coming into public safety answering points are misdials and many more involve queries that have nothing whatsoever to do with police, fire or emergency medical services.

Rather than take a few seconds to find out what’s really going on, most agencies insist that dispatching decisions get made within 60 seconds of call receipt regardless of circumstances. This was once a relatively simple affair because it relied on the intuition and judgment of experienced call-takers and dispatchers who made the call based on relatively simple heuristics. When they were equipped with little more than a telephone and a radio console, the required action took little time or effort. Not so today. These days we have two, three or even more layers of technology between call-takers and dispatching decisions. Even after a dispatch is initiated, we have even more layers of technology through which signals alerting stations and conveying information about the call must pass before responders get the message.

These interventions have made it possible to track the most minute details about each and every incident. But they have not made the process of delivering emergency service faster or more efficient. In fact, it’s just the opposite. In many instances we have become unwitting slaves to the planned obsolescence of the technologies themselves and helpless victims of the technological hurdles involved in marrying up diverse platforms supplied by competing vendors procured by different agencies.

When fire departments talk about standards of cover – the five dollar phrase for these response targets – they rarely acknowledge the fatal flaws in the logic (or lack thereof) they apply to deciding what matters. These standards, often derived from flawed analogies to fire growth curves and the onset of brain death following cardiac arrest, were easy to meet using legacy technologies that were far simpler and more efficient. But now we must contend with the expanded and often unrealistic performance expectations arising from our inability or unwillingness to make the simplest distinctions about the services we provide.

Adopting arbitrary standards of cover, like 60 second call processing times and five minute travel times, may allow us to direct the blame at others when we miss the mark overall, but it does almost nothing to solve the problem when performance falls short.

When time matters, it matters a lot and cost is not much of an issue. The good news is that getting these decisions right involves little more than giving people permission and encouragement to treat very different situations differently. The quality of the outcome always depends on how well the people perform, and when the way they use the technology becomes an impediment to what they are trying to accomplish we have the tail wagging the dog.

The single biggest factor affecting our success may well our willingness to recognize that what people experiencing or witnessing an event do before we arrive matters much more than how long it takes us to get there. Sure, response time and the quality of care help, but not if people wait too long to seek help or take no action to mitigate the consequences before we get there.

The best case in point may very well be right in my back yard: King County and Seattle, Washington have managed to achieve a 50 percent survival rate from witnessed cardiac arrest involving shockable arrhythmias (ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia). Sure, we were among the first communities to establish a fire-based advanced life support paramedic program. Yes, we send first-response EMTs on fire-based units to every call, and often as many as 10 responders to confirmed cardiac arrest calls. But the factor that has probably made the most difference has been the frequency and quality of bystander CPR.

Other programs send paramedics on the first due fire engines whenever possible. We do not. Some use dispatchers to give CPR instructions over the phone. We do too. But we do something even more important: We get out in the community and teach everyone willing to give us a few minutes of their time how to save a life.

Don’t get me wrong. People here still worry about response times. But they have a lot less reason to do so because we have nothing to hide: We rely on the public as much as they rely on us, and we’re proud of it.

See No Evil? Then Just Do It

May 16, 2012

It’s been awhile since I have managed to post something. The last wholehearted attempt I made was a reflection on May Day observances that I never finished. For some reason or another I could never come to a conclusion to that piece that really satisfied me. At least not in the sense that I was getting to the heart of what I was watching on the news and in the streets, especially here in Seattle. As a result, it sits mouldering in my queue still waiting for rewrite or deletion.

Somehow, though, a few of the themes I struggled with just a couple of weeks ago came into sharper focus for me this week in the form of two articles I read. The first described the effects of growing income inequality on individual mortality. Put simply, those who earn the least can not only expect to live shorter lives, but they can also expect their longevity to diminish as the length or the depth of the gap widens between their earnings and those at the top. The article cites other studies’ speculation as to the causes of income inequality-related mortality while noting that the academic research cited has reached no firm conclusion about specific causes, especially over the short-term. At the same time, the study provides compelling evidence of the cumulative effect of income inequality on health.

The second article suggested that crime really does pay. Or rather that unethical behavior or at the very least less-than-ethical behavior has its rewards. The Harvard Business Review item noted a recent study that displayed significant gaps between the earnings of those men who self-reported improvements in ethical awareness and subsequent ethical conduct as a result of exposure to ethical principles and practices in their post-graduate management curricula. (Sorry, no word on how the women did. Let’s just hope it was considerably better than the boys.) Sadly, but probably not too surprisingly, those who earned the most reported little awareness of or influence from exposure to ethics while earning their MBAs.

These two items got me reflecting anew on a third item that aired on May 1. NPR’s Planet Money Team produced a truly exceptional segment entitled Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things. This piece examined the story of Toby Groves, a convicted mortgage fraudster who convinced colleagues to conspire with him to create a ghost mortgage, a very real loan for an utterly fictitious property, to cover mismanagement of his business.

In the simplest terms, Toby and his colleagues justified their actions by framing the problem in two very simple but compelling ways. First, instead of seeing their actions as unethical, which they openly acknowledged they were, they reframed the decision as one of business necessity. They supported this framing in a second but equally compelling way by seeing their actions as a personal favor for a trusted friend and valued colleague. In other words, they saw Toby as someone they liked and enjoyed working with who now needed a small favor from them as opposed to the illegal and craven actions of a desperate man at his wits’ end. In short, their decisions to be helpful were aided by the notion that Toby Groves was a business associate, his business was at risk due to financial decisions they all make, and the actions he requested of them (which he openly acknowledged could get them all in heaps of trouble) required little effort on their part and were actions in which they were routinely engaged as part of their normal and legitimate business practices. Clearly, the road to hell — and prison — is paved with good intentions.

If the NPR story had any shortcomings, it was in the lack of resolution I felt from the reforms they suggested might arise to combat the problem of inappropriate cognitive framing of ethical dilemmas in the business environment. How, I wondered, might it help the situation to remind people on the forms they are signing that lying or misrepresentation are unethical or illegal? Don’t they know this already? And who reads the fine print anyway? Sure, it might help to change auditors frequently to keep them from becoming too cosy with those they oversee. But don’t we want auditors to be both rational and fair? Does this not suggest a need for some sort of empathy? How much then is too much?

Clearly, the dilemmas we face are becoming more complex just as they problems that give rise to them become more complicated and even convoluted. The credit crunch that led to the lingering economic stagnation we still endure, the ideological and political excesses of violent extremists here and abroad, and the inability to reconcile political differences for the common good not only reflect certain states of mind but also provoke powerful emotions in us that arise largely from our own cognitive biases. The challenge then is not to oversimplify any of these issues but to see them for what they are: Situations that require us to apply many different frames to achieve not only the proper resolution but sufficient perspective to interpret correctly what sits before our eyes.

We can look upon the health effects of income inequality as the sad but unintended consequences of an otherwise salutary economic system or an injustice that demands redress. We can reward unethical conduct in the workplace and accept unequal rewards for those who look after themselves before others or we can hold one another to account for what each of us thinks, says and does. If it’s true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then it’s also worth noting that there’s more than one way to skin a cat and we should try them all rather than looking for the easy way out.

Not So Fast

April 18, 2012

At the urging of fellow HLSwatch blogger Arnold Bogis, I’ve spent a little while this week reflecting on my unease about certain aspects of the FEMA Whole Community approach to disaster preparedness and community resilience. That’s proven quite difficult for me in one sense because I am generally in agreement that planning requires a lot more community engagement than we usually afford it.

Done well, community engagement contributes to resilience by encouraging the exchange of information and sharing of resources before a disaster, which builds relationships that not only endure in times of crisis but bolster our natural inclination to connect with others in need. That said, something about the whole community approach has always stuck in my craw.

Before I get to that though, I’d like to emphasize what I think works best about the whole community approach. First, it acknowledges that cities, disasters and efforts to make cities more resilient are all complex things in their own right. (This should not be taken to mean that rural areas or small towns are any less complex. They can be even more so, just in other ways.) Second, it acknowledges that improving community resilience begins by acknowledging and strengthening what people are already doing and what already works. And, third, it embraces the idea of bringing new individuals and groups into the discussion rather than relying on the expertise of those already interested. Doing so begins by meeting people and groups where they are instead of drawing them to us.

For too long, emergency management relied upon the old adage that “the world is run by those who show up.” If you were present then you were the right one to write the plan simply because you showed up and by doing so showed an interest. The unspoken assumption in all of this is that anyone interested enough to show up for the boring bits — plan writing and preparedness — can be relied upon for the difficult parts — response and recovery.

Sadly, this explains a lot of the dysfunction we see in emergency management. Too many of those who show up do so because they have a vested interest in seizing opportunities to show off their expertise or personal experience of having not been prepared. Consequently, they come to the task imbued with the white-hot intensity characteristic of the zeal of the newly converted.

This tendency leads to another problem that I think traditional approaches not only share in common with the whole community approach, but that FEMA may be taking to a whole new and unwelcome level. That is the notion that emergency planning and preparedness should be a “go big or go home” enterprise.

The coincident emphasis at FEMA on catastrophic risk planning — aka, Maximum-of-Maximums — strikes me as off-putting if not alienating. For starters, I am neither convinced you can adequately plan or prepare for catastrophic events nor compelled by experience to believe that it does that much more good than simply encouraging other forms of community engagement with efforts to address lesser hazards. “It might be true that many hands make light work,” but who will join an effort to plan for what seems to many nothing short of “the end of the world as we know it.”

We do our communities a disservice, particularly in light of the good work many are already doing to forge stronger social ties and renew the infrastructure of civic life if we ask people to imagine a world in which the fruits or their labors are left in shambles. If we are truly committed to the first three principles I mentioned — working with complexity, acknowledging what works and meeting people where they are — it seems to me that a genuine effort to engage the whole community would not start by asking people to imagine and plan for the worst.

I am willing to admit that “everything can change in the blink of an eye,” but I also know that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Writing good plans, just like building great cities and strong relationships takes time.

Emergency managers and public safety officials tend to think in short times frames, often too short. This is emotionally appealing, but often leads us to stop short when it comes to considering others’ points of view, especially when they run counter to conventional wisdom.

Time is of the essence when working to save lives, but disaster planning and community resilience are about saving whole communities. As such, they take more time than most officials are willing to give them.

This tendency to get in a great big hurry not only compromises efforts to get people involved and get the best out of them while they’re engaged, it also tends to suggest to them that response and recovery should be done at double quick-time too. This, of course, leads to all sorts of insidious problems, not the least of which is the “ready, fire, aim” mentality that overtakes many elected officials in times of crisis.

Instead of agitating by aphorism and pedaling platitudes, emergency managers should take the time to get to know their community in new ways. Take it slowly. Learn what people value. Listen to what they know. Ask what they need. Hear what they want. Then sit down and discuss how these things shape the two elements essential to any form of resilience: what we believe and what we are prepared to do.