Give “Electeds” Their Due

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Emergency managers often scorn the intrusion of “politics” or “politicians” into their work. Untimely “special” requests during regular business and even during a crisis feed the instinct of most emergency managers to “lay low” in a political environment.

The inappropriate intrusion of Executive staff in emergency management operations often impedes daily operations: on the other hand, avoiding such contact can result in the executive NOT being kept current on major issues. In addition, executive staff, and even cabinet-level department heads, jealously guard from whom the Executive receives information. The choice often is too much contact, or too little.

I have a stark recollection of being directed by an elected official to produce a disaster declaration that had not been requested by a local jurisdiction. That declaration was inane; it specified no actions to be taken, nor did it provide anything more than a photo opportunity for that elected official. We struggled to produce a document proclaiming neither justification nor specific actions to be taken! I recall being berated for our failure to “just do” what was asked. Oddly the issue was not that we were wrong to be confused but that we did not just “follow orders” so the executive leader (one that I respected and liked – most days) could be mollified.

I have directed emergency management in the administrations of 3 governors, and 3 mayors. All were smart, driven to succeed politically, and when compelled by events demonstrated a sincere commitment to the public’s welfare. That stipulated, the daily conduct of some could reveal irritability, paranoia, pettiness, insecurity, and a willingness to succumb to adoration from their personal staff. They and their staff knew that to accomplish their objectives in government they had to “look good”, sometimes in preference to actually “doing good.”

I liked/respected most, if not all of them, and success in my career and my professional reputation is in large part due to my association with their administrations and the leeway accorded me to fulfill my professional duties. I must admit that it was easy to criticize their tendencies for reactive as opposed to proactive leadership, too often forgetting that while the center of our world was emergency management, their center was broader and fraught with political risk.

To those still in the emergency management fray, or preparing to enter, try to swallow any disdain for “politics and politicians” because politics is how we self – govern in this country. Those who have the courage, or gall, to place their name on a ballot and be judged by their fellow citizens possess a drive many of us would cringe from: the willingness to risk public rejection on a grand scale. The personal qualities they possess can range from righteous to despicable behavior, but within that range (until we approach despicability!) there usually is ample room for emergency management staff to make a positive contribution.

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