The ABCs Of Public Crisis Managment

Monday, May 18, 2020

The ABCs of public crisis management: academics, bureaucracy and common sense-paging common sense...

Crisis management is a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The management of a worldwide public health crisis is unimaginable, yet more urgent and necessary than anything modern civilization has ever faced. We will manage it, and the managers show up in three organizational categories.

ABC. Academics, bureaucracy and common sense. Those are the three foundations that will support the management platform. If one is weak, then the other two lack the highest opportunity for success.

Academics will continue to be the overachiever. Physicians, researchers, universities and biotechnology companies have worked tirelessly and selflessly to seek answers, to manage the health of our citizens, to provide guidance for being healthy and staying healthy—and to search for therapeutics and vaccines, against overwhelming odds. They have been called heroes, war heroes and superheroes, and that is what they are. I am proud to know some of them and thankful every minute that they are standing strong and supporting foundation number one of the solution platform. 

Bureaucracy comes next. The second foundation on the platform Bureaucracy is necessary, but unfortunately bureaucracy is also bureaucratic. Three levels. Federal, state and local. We have seen in the past weeks the shifting sands of advice, interpretation and enforcement of the guidance that our academic heroes have worked so tirelessly to share with us. Bureaucrats are informed by politicians, and politics can be distracting, when you are trying to solve a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Everyone can be sincere but people have different world views and different objectives that can distract from the overarching objective of waging fast war on a worldwide pandemic.

Two quick Tennessee local examples. The Chattanooga Housing Authority wishes to serve our most vulnerable neighbors by offering free testing at public housing communities in our city. The Housing Authority has assured the test results will be confidential and only supplied to the person being tested.  It is very likely that positive results are required to be reported to the county health department, nonetheless. And, just last week, we learned that our governor has directed that all health department positive test results should be shared under a state and local memorandum of understanding with local law-enforcement agencies. This creates the possibility that our most compromised neighbors, who are promised confidentiality, will not receive it, because their test results will unwittingly go from our local health department to the state department of health and then to law-enforcement agencies. These decisions by the governor are good faith crisis management actions, but when combined with the local housing authority testing effort, the polarized decisions create confusion and distrust; and these decisions create a disincentive for our neediest neighbors to receive free testing. Trust will be eroded. 

Tennessee’s governor has also also ordered the resumption this month of $9 annual, in person mandatory vehicle emissions testing, whereby a tester has to approach and lean into the driver’s side of private vehicles. Each individual testing employee would encounter hundreds of citizens each week, and it is safe to say that the testing personnel are not health and hygiene experts. Without a valid and current emission test result, citizens cannot renew their vehicle registrations. This is a very efficient way to spread disease. 

Thus, we must find our good friend and third platform, common sense.

Academics can over-perform and bureaucrats can order actions to be taken, but all of the above must be tempered with common sense. This third foundation of the platform is our North Star.

What we have witnessed over the past 10 weeks is not unexpected. That is why we called a crisis. The mess is here and it is not going away anytime soon—invoking common sense will send it on its way more quickly. 

While the academics work 23 hours a day and while the bureaucrats manufacture bureaucracy, there must be a third and very thoughtful aggregation of qualified leaders whose only job is to think through the research findings, the public health weaknesses and opportunities and the leadership decisions being considered.

The common sense foundation to the platform should be led by experienced crisis managers who can put aside political differences, business interests and egos. These crisis managers must have the courage to speak brutal honesty to academics and politicians, and to shake them up, to tell them to “snap out of it“ and to help them to make sensible, congruent and logical decisions. 

Easier said than done with a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle, but it is still just ABCs.

Michael Mallen
Health, safety and environmental attorney


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