Community Resilience Continuity Contributors Crisis management Emergency Management

The US government needs a Chief Resilience Officer to prepare the US for all catastrophes

The US federal government iceberg is a Frankenstein’s monster of cabinet-level departments, boards, commissions and agencies, more than two thousand in all, stitched together by successive generations of elected and appointed officials over some 250 years of history. The President-elect should move quickly to bring modern risk management practices to bear to create order out of this chaos. The first step is to create a permanent framework, led by a capable Chief Resilience Officer, to manage the biggest portfolio of risks ever managed in the history of the world.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. [It] is an opportunity to do things that you could not do before.”Rahm Emanuel

The expectations of a weary population for a better US government response to the coronavirus crisis are sky-high.  But, as the President-elect moves quickly to fix it, he must not miss an opportunity to address the root causes of its failure.  Now is the time to work across all layers of government, and the whole community, to prepare the nation for the even greater threats that lie ahead.  

I have criticized the lack of a comprehensive and coordinated approach to resilience in the US [1]. The reason for this unhappy state of affairs is that nobody wants to “own” the responsibility of preparing the nation for devastating catastrophes. We, the nation and the world, have seen the consequences of this critical preparedness gap play out over the past ten months of the coronavirus crisis. 

In the early days of the crisis, we watched our public health agencies, including HHS and CDC, dither and delay when faced with a real-world pandemic [2]. At the same time FEMA, the agency charged with coordinating the federal response, instead worked to distance itself from it as the chaos inside the federal government grew.  Sensing the chaos, the President went into defense mode, shielding himself [3] with repeated assertions that he was doing a great job.  This “failure to own” is the core of our national disgrace. Because the White House didn’t own it, we didn’t activate in time and we haven’t executed effectively.  Thankfully, all of this looks set to change.

Like it or not, we are all in the resilience business

The first task for the President-elect transition team is to quickly pivot from the political to the practical.  As it will soon discover, most of what the federal bureaucracy does is try to prevent things from going very badly, from a cyber 9/11 that could send us back to the Dark Ages to a nuclear explosion that could wipe out an entire city. In fact, three-quarters of its 2.1 million employees are in one way or another involved in national security.  

The Department of Energy is a good example.  DOE is responsible for everything from countering the North Korea threat to shoring up our fragile electrical grid.  It spends over two billion dollars a year scouring the world to make sure loose nukes don’t fall into the wrong hands.  During the Obama administration alone, it collected enough weapons-grade plutonium and uranium to make a hundred and sixty nuclear bombs.  But that is just the tip of the iceberg. 

The worst resilience program imaginable

The US federal government iceberg is a Frankenstein’s monster of cabinet-level departments, boards, commissions and agencies, more than two thousand in all, stitched together by successive generations of elected and appointed officials over some 250 years of history.  The result is an immensely complex landscape of blinkered silos, with overlapping specializations and responsibilities.  Congress tries to influence the work of this beast with its hundreds of different voices and ever-changing funding streams. But the White House and Congress rarely agree about all the things the agencies should be working on, or even know what they are. With respect to preventing things from going very badly, Michael Lewis describes it as kindergarten soccer: “everyone is on the ball, but no one is at their positions”[4]

As we look out ahead to a treacherous future, it is difficult to imagine an organization that is less-suited to deal with it.  Our dysfunctional bureaucracy, our legacy government, cannot coordinate a coherent response to the myriad threats we face.

We must take charge of the biggest portfolio of risks in history

The President-elect should move quickly to bring modern risk management practices to bear to create order out of this chaos.  The first step is to create a permanent framework, led by a capable Chief Resilience Officer, to manage the biggest portfolio of risks ever managed in the history of the world.

The Chief Resilience Officer would be unleashed into the government to break down silo walls, one by one, to unearth the white-hot risks buried deep within those two thousand agencies.  S/he would work across the whole of the government to create a just and coherent approach that aligns with our values.  S/he would ensure that prevention (we call them “mitigation”) measures are prioritized over response initiatives.  S/he would ensure a laser focus on our vulnerable populations; our seniors, the disabled and those with access and function needs, and the racial and ethnic minorities who are so disproportionately affected by disasters.

Give the job to FEMA

But this kind of bold solution requires leadership of a special kind. 

The kind of leadership that breaks down silo walls to create a commonality of purpose among people and agencies doing very different work. Some call that meta-leadership but we know it to be merely emergency management.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is doing this work now. With its mission to “ensure that as a nation we work together to prepare for and protect against all hazards”, the FEMA Administrator is the de facto Chief Resilience Officer.  We must now make this responsibility explicit and charge the incoming FEMA Administrator with the role of risk manager for the national enterprise.

We can’t keep bringing rocks to a gunfight

The transition is finally underway as the crisis continues to grow, with uncontrolled outbreaks in nearly every US state.  But within every crisis are the seeds of opportunity.  For better or worse, the federal government holds the key.  In the midst of a rushed transition, the President-elect must not lose an opportunity to build a just and enduring legacy of resiliency for the even greater challenges that lie ahead.

You liked what you read ? Leave a comment.


[1] McKinney, Kelly. Moment of Truth: the Nature of Catastrophes and How to Prepare for Them. Savio Republic, 2018 https://www.amazon.com/Moment-Truth-Nature-Catastrophes-Prepare/dp/168261591X

[2] “A …behind-the-scenes peek into the messy early stages of the U.S. response to the coronavirus, reveal[ed] an antiquated public health system trying to adapt on the fly.  What comes through clearly is confusion” “Internal Emails Show How Chaos at the CDC Slowed the Early Response to Coronavirus” ProPublica, by Caroline Chen, Marshall Allen and Lexi Churchill, March 26, 2020, accessed at https://www.propublica.org/article/internal-emails-show-how-chaos-at-the-cdc-slowed-the-early-response-to-coronavirus

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/18/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-response-failure-leadership.html

[4] Lewis, Michael (2018). The Fifth Risk. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-1-324-00264-2.

1 comment

  1. Yes, possibly look to FEMA as it is supposed to be the one for “all hazards”. It needs to be funded & managed to do such. If it were? This deal of Covid & face covers and other basics, never should been reliant on the president for anything other than support. It became lunacy on just basics. A circus off to the side might have helped with distraction away from the issues. Did nothing but exasperate the issues. Roll in to the process. In the case of President looking for SECDEF to bring in the Military – never should the SECDEF be put in a bind. If he says yes, he is in real trouble with some many and in so many ways. If he doesn’t say yes, he is insubordinate to the President – which is a must in that situation. There are more pieces to the puzzle(s) that needs to be addressed. Does mean the person at FEMA will be covering what? All Hazards but we have Depts to do some of this already but lack some authority or fail to use it appropriately. People “inside” know how the play went. Rest are outsiders looking in. People on the outside still need to support those on the inside. As was the case with SECDEF getting feedback quickly on the back ground of each 5 times when such was done. SECDEF was still busy trying to run the Dept while a circus event is trying to pull him in. The person did get support quickly. Follow up by 89 others who stood up collectively from the past. If not, SECDEF would have been replaced by a “Yes man” which is not what anyone needs nor wants. Apply that to the Covid, the big fires, the major storms, plus other things and keeping prep for the future? Part of the problem, days of the old Civil Defense things were directed towards “everyone”. The SWISS approach to teach all and your back up team can be a cast of characters of significance. Becomes how to deploy and whom to go where when and for what. If one looks at the rest of the globe while US has been distracted? There is a lot of shuffling around. Some saying, don’t look at us – look over there that is the show. We are just working along behind the scenes… Doing what where? Take it up a notch for the “Resilience” or “Continuity” or numerous titles if more things are concurrently happening. Plus ability to pull the plug on circus events. Preaching to the Choir…

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: