On Devolution

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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Today's word is "devolution."

Yesterday I talked about two fairly dark subjects... pandemic planning, and continuity of government / continuity of operations (COOP/COG). Might as well talk about devolution today, which is even darker. But devolution is what exactly?

Devolution of government is when a government at any level starts to completely, fully erode or be gone. In the US, we saw this a little bit in Hurricane Katrina in very isolated cases when some elements of local government were abandoned because of job safety or effectiveness, or things like protection of family.

In the federal government right now, while we are seeing heavy erosion of institutions, the institutions themselves do remain intact. Dysfunctional and eroded to varying degrees, but intact.

One of these things that happens in a continuity-of-government situation is that the order of succession is activated. This could happen at any level. In the federal government, we are most familiar with the order of succession from the president on down through the cabinet. Each cabinet agency has its own order of succession and secret hideaway locations (they're not officially called that) out in the middle of nowhere. -Ish. Specifics are protected or classified.

Same thing for state and local government. Orders of succession. Alternate facilities. Sometimes. Results may vary. There are usually COOP/COG plans in place for things like 911 call centers and so on. The level of resilience usually reflects the level of resilience of the city or jurisdiction overall. If we're talking about Los Angeles County, there's some serious stuff in place. If we're talking about a barely incorporated town in the middle of Colorado, there's not a lot of depth there. Hospitals also have continuity of operations programs and contingencies. Businesses can, too. Continuity is going to be a big thing. So is surge capacity. Neither of those are what we're talking about today though.

How on earth is devolution related to coronavirus, and why today?

It came up mostly in watching what's going on with members of the Republican Party who attended CPAC, got exposed to coronavirus, who have interacted with other members of government since, and who are in varying degrees of self-quarantine, or not, as the case may be. As of Monday night, one of them opted to go about his daily life, with an apparently callous disregard for everybody whose life he touches. Oh to be a powerful pale man in Congress.

The Iranian government illustrates what can happen here. Some stuff is going down over there with coronavirus and we won't ever know what it is, but it's not looking good. You can have all the secret hideaway continuity of operations facilities you want, but if you spread disease to your colleagues, those facilities won't amount to a hill of beans. You and at least some of your friends may not make it. Especially if you're in the vulnerable category. The Iranian government is taking some hits. They're not the only government that is having fatalities tied to coronavirus. And we're just in the beginning.

Federal legislators don't have an order of succession. When they die, there are special elections, and appointments in the interim. So that's one whole set of things.

Also, Congress has all kinds of continuity stuff in place, but apparently they don't have things in place for a pandemic, because it doesn't sound like they have a process set up for them to vote on legislation remotely. Which is kind of insane, because they should have done at least some pandemic planning.

So how are we going to get Federal funding or any legal changes needed to handle coronavirus at scale if this thing spreads through the legislature? It's pretty critical that we have a functioning legislature when we're coming into the largest crisis the world has seen since World War II. So there's that.

This is a lot of stuff. I could go on.

Find Ways Forward

The point is that there's quite a bit of risk on the horizon here. We already have a fairly dysfunctional federal government.

We basically recommend four things to help you get through this pandemic - in light of all this.  They are community, connection, problem-solving, and resilience.

The effects from a pandemic are as much a part of it as the virus. A pandemic is its own thing. People will try and tell you otherwise. Those people are holding onto denial. Denial is a strong demotivator, and it can be highly counterproductive in a crisis. Would you want to sit next to the legislator who won't quarantine himself? Denial is a problem.

Leverage The Power Of Federalism

Things are going to change quickly.

As things intensify, we have an asset in these United States that not all countries have. It's called federalism. It's the system our constitution provides that gives incredible strength to local and state governments, according to each state government's constitution.

There's a ton of power and strength there. There are authorities. Assets. Resources. Capabilities.

We need to be anchoring to those. In a serious way. We need to make sure that state and local governments are functional, especially as the Republican party currently running the government has shown itself to be incapable of a proper response, and quite willing to make it worse in a useless attempt to hold onto power. It's not going to work, but more than that - it's going to continue to cause chaos. And if there's any federal devolution at all whatsoever, we will be much better positioned for success with strong state and local governments.

To do that, we would be wise to push as much Federal money as possible out to the local, tribal, and state levels ASAP.

We can find strength in local, tribal, and state government.

If you want an example of what this looks like, see the Governor Inslee interview with Rachel Maddow from Monday night, 3/9. Take a look at the kinds of decisions that Washington state has needed to make as the coronavirus is unfolding. That's the stuff. That's what's coming, as an example. It would be different where you live. But it will definitely be at least as complex.

And to be fair, devolution is indeed possible at any level of government, especially with a pandemic. Ideally, all levels of government would be super strong and resilient. Yet we already know we have weaknesses on the federal side. So state, tribal, county, and city strength is that much more important.

Focus On Problem-Solving

Take a plan that's 80% of where you need to be and run with it. That's advice I learned from operations people.

We have got to get out of this insane disempowerment where we're sitting around online - or wherever - wondering when the federal government is going to get its act together.

It isn't.

The media's ridiculous focus on the federal response is not helping. We're getting further behind the power curve.

We need to focus on finding solutions.


Together. We need to focus on state, tribal, and local government. We need to raise holy hell and get the media to shift their focus.

This isn't rocket science.

It IS getting real.

Obviously readers can take the recommendations here in many ways.  One way to take them is as the dead-serious recommendations of a disaster management professional who's worked in pandemic and catastrophe planning, worked disasters and an epidemic, and specialized in critical infrastructure protection, the National Incident Management System, disaster information sharing, large-scale emergency notification systems, continuity of operations, continuity-of-government, and the economic resilience of communities during disasters.

I don't make recommendations lightly.

Community, connection, problem-solving, resilience.

These are the things. I suggest we do them.

There are ways forward.

As a favorite fire chief mentor used to say, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way."


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A version of this post was originally published on the founder's personal Facebook page here.

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