Politics Is Unavoidable for Emergency Managers (Opinion)

There’s an undercurrent of politics that rules our lives at the federal, state and local levels of government.

by Eric Holdeman / February 4, 2011
U.S. Global Change Research Program

Politics is as American as mom and apple pie. It’s everywhere. Though the political campaigning and negative ads have stopped for the time being, there’s an undercurrent of politics that rules our lives at the federal, state and local levels of government. Government by nature is political, and if you work in government, you exist within a political governing system.

It surprises me when talk of a job opening, usually at the senior level, is that it’s “too political.”

What does that mean? Of course there are jobs that are political, and I’d suggest that if you work in the public sector, you’re in a political position. If you want to avoid everything except “office politics,” you should work in the private sector.

Here are some things I’ve been told about the “too political” nature of some positions and what I’d say to counter those arguments.

  • There are people who don’t like the tenuous nature of the “at will” position appointed by an elected official.

If you do outstanding work, build a reputation for getting things done, and don’t sit back on your haunches waiting for something to happen, then you can outlast your political appointee. Emergency management is generally a high enough profile position in government these days that people don’t just want a political hack filling the position. Many competent emergency managers are retained by new administrations. Thankfully some incompetent ones are shown the door when there’s a new leader in town.

  • Elected officials don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to emergency management and disasters.

And whose job is it to train them? Probably the most knowledgeable person in the jurisdiction on the topic of emergency management is the emergency manager. If elected officials don’t know squat about what their jobs are, what their roles are in a disaster, it’s your responsibility to train them. However, I wouldn’t call it training. Getting elected officials to training is like pulling teeth. They might come to an “executive briefing” on a particular topic that covers emergency management and their duties. Generally I’ve been successful in getting those types of audiences. It provides the opportunity for the exchange of information. They can ask questions, and you have answers. Getting elected officials to participate in an exercise is another good way to expose them to the emergency operations center environment and prepare them for their role when actual events do occur.

  • You say going before the council, commission, legislature or Congress isn’t something you want to do.

If you have an opportunity to appear then it’s that — an opportunity. Don’t dread it; relish the fact that the topic of emergency management is finally being addressed. Be prepared for questions coming out of left field, but control your answers.

I’ve been a major proponent of emergency management acting as a regional effort — one that isn’t confined to a single geopolitical jurisdiction. The river floods where it wants to, and the ground won’t stop shaking during an earthquake when it hits city limits. Because of the complex geopolitical situation in the United States, emergency managers must work across jurisdictional lines to forge relationships to strengthen regions. That means politics will enter the equation. Unfortunately I’ve seen some emergency managers act more “political” than their parent jurisdictional elected officials.

If we’re to be successful, we must turn politics to our benefit. If you avoid it, your program and community will suffer more when disaster strikes because it wasn’t as prepared as it could have been. By the nature of what we do, we must be part of the political process. Our communities are counting on us to be political in all the right ways.

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