Is Micromanagement Threatening our Homeland Security?

Knowing when to delegate and when to insert yourself into the decision making process is an art form, but when top leaders are unable to do this, our security is threatened. Leadership is not a science.

President Obama is not alone with this dilemma. While I am sympathetic to his challenge, now that Michèle Flournoy, widely seen as the front-runner to replace Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense, took herself out of the running for the job; the complaints from previous Defense Secretaries seem louder. Bob Gates and Leon Panetta both lamented about the meddling and overreach of the White House that made it impossible for them to effectively do their jobs.

Flournoy cited “family concerns” as a reason for deciding “that now was not the right time for me to re-enter government.” But assertions abound that she was probably influenced by other factors, including the national-security staff’s notorious micromanagement of the Pentagon. “The White House team is severely micromanaging most departments, not just defense, but defense included,” said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University who oversaw national security budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. “I can assume that Michele knows that animal pretty well because she was undersecretary,” he said.

States can have the same complaint about federal partners micromanaging an emergency response. The National Incident Management System does not require the federal government to assume the lead in managing a response unless states request that they do so. Since Hurricane Katrina states experience a federal government so “forward leaning” that a new challenge exists. In addition to responding to a small or moderate incident, states need to allocate personnel to communicate up and work with the federal government so that they will not self-deploy, circumvent the system and ultimately require more work and damage control.

Micromanagement is not limited to the federal government. “Home rule” states where local government has the authority to self-govern experience similar struggles with emergency preparedness and response when states try to micromanage how a local jurisdiction responds to a disaster. Local governments in home rule states are free to pass laws and ordinances as they see fit to further their operations, within the bounds of the state and federal constitutions.

Inherent tension exists when the legal interpretation of how this should work gets very messy when a state leader wants to exceed their authority and tell a local government what to do or insert the state into a response. One example in my state involved a state director coordinating an After Action Conference to review how locals responded to a local event. Besides voicing criticism, one affected jurisdiction simply did not attend. Those who did attend also complained of the state’s micromanagement and not “minding their own business” and shared a general sense of negativity toward the state director: “This is not Communist China”.

The Schwarzenegger Administration was infamous for micromanaging emergency response. The Governor would state he wanted “action, action, action” regardless if additional action was needed. California experienced the largest evacuation in history due to wildfires during his tenure in October 2007 but the state’s emergency management system was functioning well. The Governor ignored the system, sent his own staff to shelters and those staff duplicated resource requests for the shelters that emergency responders were already processing. It was not easy to determine which needs were already met and which resource requests were duplicative; and action, action, action resulted in chaos, chaos, chaos in the emergency operations centers.

I have been told similar stories about the Mayor of New York micromanaging shelter care after Hurricane Sandy. Instead of following the plan for mass care and shelter, he reportedly brought in the coordinators of the Macy’s Parade to do this job.

Leadership experts say micromanagement occurs when managers don’t quite know how to manage. The result is ineffective use of personnel and tremendously lower productivity. Because disasters, whether natural or man-made; are messy, often happen by surprise and don’t usually follow a scenario neatly, leaders who are not trained emergency managers may tend to micromanage instead of allowing trained staff to do their jobs or follow well-tested systems that are in place to manage an incident. It can happen to the best of managers because of the intrinsic nature of disasters.

It’s like watching a train wreck.

When homeland security and emergency management employees and partners are not empowered to do their jobs without being micromanaged; chaos, infighting and morale-busting follows, drawing attention away from what needs to get done. I imagine the terrorists rejoicing.

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