By Phil Piemonte
People with a low opinion of the federal government like to pass around jokes that have the punch line: "I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help." President Ronald Reagan famously called them "the 10 most frightening words in the English language."
But when things are really bad, they are words people want to hear.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency — and by extension, the federal government — got a pretty bad rap in 2005 for its response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In fairness, the government was faced with a truly massive task. But public perceptions of the response didn’t do much to bolster the government’s reputation.
Now, almost six years later, eyes are on both the agency and the government to see how well they manage the federal response to the devastation caused by what some news agencies are calling the deadliest rash of tornadoes since the Great Depression.
And like it or not, in this country — where there are plenty of people who roll their eyes at the mere mention of "the federal government" — the performance of a few federal agencies can reflect on feds everywhere.
But so far, so good. It appears that someone, somewhere, did learn a lot from Katrina.
As of April 29 — pretty much immediately after the events — FEMA already had staff on the ground in at least six of the affected states. These included FEMA liaison officers, at least one regional incident management team and three national incident management teams. The agency also had established an incident support base in Alabama to move drinking water, tarps and other supplies to needed areas, and it had deployed a mobile emergency response support team to provide voice, data and video communications.
And that’s just FEMA.
The Health and Human Services Department, also as of April 29, had activated a logistics advance team, a disaster mortuary operational response assessment team, an incident response coordination team to provide public health and medical support, and a disaster medical team to provide rapid-response medical care.
Other agencies had deployed personnel as well. NOAA sent people into the region to measure the storm damage. The Defense Department sent staff to the area to coordinate the use of DOD resources to support response and recovery efforts. And President Barack Obama arrived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to examine the damage alongside FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.
Fugate was slated to return to stricken areas in Mississippi and Alabama two days later, along with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Small Business Administration Administrator Karen Mills.
The bottom line is that so far this time the federal government — you guys — are looking pretty good.
With the current mood in Congress, which reconvenes this week, it couldn’t hurt.
Posted on May 02, 2011 at 6:43 AM2 comments
Various news organizations today have reported the names of several people who — according to the sources of news entities such as The Washington Post — will be named to top administration posts by President Barack Obama.
According to those reports, these individuals will play musical chairs. Gen. David Petraeus reportedly will replace CIA Director Leon Panetta, who will move into the top Pentagon post, replacing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who used to be CIA director. Yeesh.
Which got us to thinking: Although they’ve all held (or reportedly will hold) some of the same jobs, Panetta, Gates and Petraeus are pretty different guys.
Which got us to thinking some more: Anyone with the government for more than a couple of years has experienced a changing of the guard. And they must have cataloged a few observations about such changeovers along the way.
According to an often-repeated bit of common wisdom, change comes from the top. But how often does that happen?
So our question for you is: At the rank-and-file level, how much difference has a past change at the top really made at your agency? Is the effect greater at some agencies than others? Or do the changes have a day-to-day effect only in the executive ranks?
What’s your experience?
Posted on Apr 27, 2011 at 2:26 PM5 comments
After having endured a month or more of grim budget news, we were looking for a way to turn some lemons into lemonade. And we came up with this…
As you may or may not know, each year the Partnership for Public Service goes through a lot of data to rank federal agencies and come up with a list of The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.
We were looking at the top 20 “best places to work” from the groups’ 2010 list, and we realized that 2011 is a far different year from a budget perspective. Leaner budgets could have a significant effect on a lot of federal agencies — and maybe on this year’s rankings.
We figured you might have some ideas on that.
So we decided to ask you — as part of an unrelated and wholly unscientific effort — to select the agency you think will come out on top of this year’s list.
In honor of Kentucky Derby Day, we’ve made it a “horse race,” and posted a “betting ticket” on the Federal Daily website, where you can vote for your winning agency and track the race as more votes come in.
Take a look. Cast a vote. Then watch 'em run.
C’mon. What could it hurt?
Posted on Apr 27, 2011 at 7:21 AM5 comments
Every year when Earth Day rolls around, just about every federal agency and department touts its successes from the prior year and reminds everyone — employees and public alike — that being “green” is a year-round objective.
But the problem is this: Trading one thing for another doesn’t always fix things.
Most obvious example: Paperless offices may save trees, but the computing and communications technologies in those offices still suck up energy generated by other natural resources – often pollution-producing coal or natural gas.
At the same time, because of continual technological advances, the microscopic switching and processing that goes on in a whole range of electronic devices today requires less and less energy. But when devices are portable, as a lot of them are, you still have to store that energy. As a result, even the most green-minded person out there owns one or more handheld, wireless devices powered by batteries that require special disposal when they wear out. There are millions of those toxic batteries out there. Ditto for those new energy-efficient light bulbs that contain mercury.
Another consideration: All sorts of electronic devices contain bits of hardware that rely on minuscule bits of rare earth material to work—stuff that someone, somewhere, is destroying the landscape to obtain.
Fact: My grandfather never heard the term “green” outside of his vegetable garden. But he used a prehistoric Western Electric landline telephone that lasted for 40 or 50 years. On the other hand, my kids grew up thinking green. But the way things look from here, they will buy 20 or 30 or 40 wireless, multifunction phone-like devices over that period, in the process consuming all the resources that the manufacture of those products will entail.
Then there is ethanol. Some people now argue that making fuel out of food (corn) is unethical, maybe immoral — especially since the rising price of oil is driving up the price of corn and the land it is grown on. But at one time, the idea that people could grow a renewable source of fuel in a corn field seemed like a brilliant solution. Wind power? What about all the dead birds piled up under them?
New fuel-efficient fleet? Wait — before you decide, first trace your way back the supply and production chains and see how much energy and how many resources you’re going to consume to obtain them. (In the big picture, is it more environmentally sound to wear out the old fleet first?)
I've mentioned only a couple of things here. There are thousands of parts to the "green" puzzle.
So, for all our efforts, are we making any progress?
I don’t know. At noon on the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, I was a pallbearer in a funeral procession at my high school. Like the five other pallbearers, I wore a gas mask. We carried a borrowed, open coffin containing a plastic skeleton lent by one of the biology teachers. Someone held a poster that said something about pollution, a kid from the band beat a funeral march on his snare drum, and the procession slowly made its way around the campus during lunch hour.
At the time, to a kid especially, it seemed like a few policy changes would fix the problems — which back then mostly seemed to be roadside litter, and polluted water and air. But now, more than 40 years later, in spite of countless policy and technology changes, environmental problems have become even more varied and complex. Now in addition to worrying about polluted water and air, I worry about the dangers posed by climate change, nanotechnology, biological superbugs, and other new threats.
Am I geezing? Probably. But we’ve been working on these problems for a while. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, like Earth Day, traces its origins back to 1970. The EPA and many other agencies have been working on various parts of the problem for four decades.
In recent years, the federal government has made more of an effort to implement environmentally sound policies and practices, and when it does, to become an example for others.
But is it working? Or are we playing environmental Whac-a-Mole, where a new problem pops up every time we solve another one?
You tell me.
Posted on Apr 22, 2011 at 12:16 PM7 comments