It is now well into the crisis and the media reports indicate the West seems to be finally recognizing the seriousness of the situation in West Africa. The Americans have had a couple of Ebola cases arising from a man who visited West Africa and returned infected to the US. He died, but not before others got infected or exposed. Spain also had a health care worker infected. The worker cared for a missionary priest who returned from work in West Africa once he contacted the virus. The priest later died. These cases got massive media attention and that got ordinary people thinking about Ebola. The President of the United States appeared on TV in an address to the country and asked people not to panic. He disavowed calls to ban airline flights from Ebola affected countries or to deny all requests for visas to people from the affected countries. He rightfully said it would probably make things worse and probably would not be effective, even if it were tried. Resources and people would have a tougher time getting into West Africa to help with the outbreak and it would give a false sense of security to Americans.
The virus is well entrenched in communities in West Africa but health care workers have been hit very hard too, with about fifty per cent dying if they contact the illness. In the West occurrences of the illness, will likely place health care workers in the highest risk group. Dedicated health care workers will assume this greater risk to prevent the virus from getting out into their community. That is what happened with SARS. I hope that with the lessons we should have learned from SARS, we would give our front line health care workers the best protection available.
However, the Australian and Canadian governments tried to quietly halt granting new travel visas to people from affected West African countries. I guess the Canadian government has forgotten its own outrage when the WHO issued a travel advisory for Toronto during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue with the government if you agree with the premise that the ‘first duty of government is to protect its citizens.’
However, the US President did appoint what the media called an “Ebola Czar” to be his point person on the emergency. This occurred after the CDC gave a disappointing account of their Ebola efforts to a Committee of Congress. Around the same time WHO admitted publicly that, they “mishandled” the Ebola emergency at the beginning. That must have a startling admission by a world-class organization, to government leaders, whose primary mandate is to watch for and protect the world from infectious diseases.
Many people including the media, health sector, military and particularly people viewed the Ebola Czar appointed by the US president as curious in the emergency management business. The role of the Czar seems to be what one might expect of a senior emergency manager. However, the appointee doesn’t come from the health industry, nor is he connected to the CDC, the UN or WHO, or FEMA, nor does he have any military experience in managing the overseas deployment of thousands of personnel. Moreover, he certainly does not appear to be a traditional emergency management person.
Therefore, what qualities does this person have that would have convinced the “leader of the Free World” to appoint him to this role as Ebola Czar. He clearly has the confidence of the President. That may seem an obvious thing to state but it is key to effectively managing the crisis. However, how did he gain the President’s confidence? We can only guess, but by all reports, he has the reputation of a person who gets things done. We know from media reports that he works well with people, knows his organization intimately – the government and works effectively across all departments.
Political opponents of the President have criticized his appointment but the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases publicly praised the appointment. The Director said he was a … “excellent manager” … “a good organizer”.
So, if we step back from this appointment by the President, what does this say about the state of emergency management leadership within the US government? We have heard little about why the president selected this person to be his “Ebola Czar” and nothing about why he did not pick someone from health emergency management or from the broader emergency management groups like FEMA or even the military. We probably will not see any explanation from the White House. Nevertheless, I am prepared to speculate on what qualities the Present looked for before making his selection.
When an emergency event threatens their organization, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Corporate leaders will always prefer to turn to someone who is known to them as a leader and an effective manager of complex problems. The converse is perfectly logical, what executive would appoint someone to handle a complex problem when the person is unknown to the executive?
Therefore, this would be an important quality. The executive must know the person or it will be unlikely that the executive is going to select them. You can be known for all the wrong reasons. That is where the second part of knowing the person comes into play. The executive must also have confidence in their ability to effectively handle the assignment. Confidence that comes from past experience with the person, from someone who has worked within the inner circle, someone who has sat at the board table during those early morning briefings of the executive committee. Therefore, a potential appointee must be a known quantity and have the confidence of the executive, based on experience, that they will effectively manage the emergency.
Following logically from there, this experience will almost certainly mean that the person has a comprehensive knowledge of who’s who within the organization. In this case, the newly appointed Czar was a former senior political staffer, so he is probably well connected to all the other people who lead the various departments of government. Thus, he almost certainly knows the key players in each department. He is not swapping business cards with them the first time they meet to tackle the Ebola emergency.
His experience provides a broad view of the organization. He does not come from any particular public sector silo. This could be beneficial in a couple of ways. He is unlikely to be myopic. If the selection made by the President had come from Homeland Security, or Public Health, or FEMA or the CDC or the Military etc. a valid concern among his counterparts in these other departments would be if he might approach the problems with blinkered eyes. In addition, he will be viewed as organizationally neutral, so department heads would be more willing to collaborate with him. He will avoid every opportunity for the subject matter experts from the health, public health, scientific, military and traditional emergency management fields to get their noses out of joint publicly. If someone from an associated group was selected, that appointee may be viewed as promoting their own department.
He is probably also well connected to organizations outside government and adopts a “big tent” approach to the assignment. He will not only connect with the affected West African governments but the UN agencies and the many aid agencies that are trying to combat the virus in West Africa. These relationships will require a collaborative approach. In addition, he is used to collaborating with others to get the job done.
The President would expect his new Czar to work collaboratively with all the players involved. Therefore, when the Czar reports in, the President can be assured that everyone is on board with the approach to the issue being recommended. This may explain why the President avoided appointing someone from any organization with a “command and control” culture. That may eliminate an appointee from the military or many traditional emergency management groups.
The After Action Report of almost every emergency event I have reviewed listed one particular area of the emergency response that was always a huge challenge for emergency managers – communications. The Czar must certainly be a consummate communicator. He will keep the President informed of what is happening with the file. He will keep all the players and constituents involved in the Ebola Crisis response in the loop. He will understand that in this particular situation openly sharing information will be one of his keys to success. Rather than allowing “players from silos” to hoard information so they can impress the boss, he is going to demand that they also freely share all information with each other. He is likely capably experienced in dealing with the media, so the flow of information to the media will be expertly managed during the emergency. Moreover, the media will find out soon enough that they will find little success in trying to go around him either to the White House or to some of the other players involved in the response to Ebola.