March 14, 2017
The expert on managing crises talks to Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration about governing in a complex technological age.
The secret to good public leadership, Mr. Allen said, is lifelong learning, an insatiable curiosity that drives you to understand changes that are going on. The other essential element for navigating “choppy seas,” he said, is emotional intelligence.–Admiral (rtd) Thad Allen
By B. L. Wilson
As the U.S. Coast Guard commandant who headed the government’s response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as the clean up of Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, retired Adm. Thad Allen, M.P.A. ’86, said he would offer the following advice to President Donald Trump about managing a disaster.
“Be the President. You can’t do everything yourself,” Mr. Allen said he’d tell Mr. Trump. “Hire a competent person to [focus on the problem] to the exclusion of everything else without the intrusion of policy, politics and partisanship.”
He added that it was also important for that person to be allowed to speak directly to the American people. It doesn’t matter who is President, Mr. Allen said, the government would face challenges from rapid technological advances, increased globalization and human impact on the environment.
In the first annual Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration Public Leadership Forum that will carry his name, Mr. Allen shared insights with graduate students and alumni Tuesday night. Throughout this series, Mr. Allen and other senior government executives from across the political spectrum will conduct interactive conversations on the value and challenges of government service.
“There’s plenty to do regardless of who is leading the nation,” he said. “It is a question of how leaders and policymakers have to carve out an area that they’re responsible for, protect their subordinates and explain what’s going on.”
The side benefit of having been involved in crises that included the Haitian earthquake and serving as the Atlantic commander of the New York Harbor and Potomac during the 9/11 terrorism attack, he said, was the opportunity it gave him to take notes about what else was happening and how public policy and administration was handled.
His talk at Jack Morton Auditorium was billed as a non-partisan conversation, “Public Service Leaders: Navigating Choppy Seas.” Mr. Allen, who is a partner with the Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. consulting firm, characterized himself as an “agnostic to science,” comparing taking a position on climate change and global warming to touching a deadly third rail.
“There’s water where none used to be, and I’m responsible for it,” he said. “You can argue about why it happened and the source, but there’s a perception and expectation that somehow government is going to do their job and attack the problem.”
He described a U.S. government that was having trouble keeping up with issues around the use of computers, involving encryption and privacy, data analytics and machine learning. Companies like Apple, he pointed out, are not waiting for the government or an international organization to come up with cell phone standards for a global navigation satellite system and are adapting to different systems in different regions and countries.
“It’s now become a stern chase where we’re falling further and further behind,” he said. “That also involves how we actually regulate and deal with safety issues.”
As an example, he noted that companies in Detroit are equipping cars with technology faster than the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration can come up with rules to regulate their safety. He said it is unlikely the process will get overhauled anytime soon unless there is more collaboration between the government and the private sector. If that doesn’t make your head hurt, he said, natural disasters continue even as the country is hit by outbreaks of diseases such as the Zika virus.
The problems in dealing with such events, Mr. Allen explained, are made harder because there may be no clear channel for seeking emergency authorization and appropriation of resources and funding due to overlapping jurisdictions and the involvement of multiple federal agencies.
“This is the issue going forward—increased complexity, scope and scale,” Mr. Allen said. “When you get things this complex, the complexity becomes a risk aggregator because it starts to defeat statutory responsibilities, standard operating procedures and doctrine.”
The secret to good public leadership, Mr. Allen said, is lifelong learning, an insatiable curiosity that drives you to understand changes that are going on. The other essential element for navigating “choppy seas,” he said, is emotional intelligence.
“Especially when you’re working across boundaries on complex problems, you have to have empathy and listen to the other stakeholders and understand what they are trying to say to you,” the retired admiral said.