When the Generals Talk

We have this great tension over leadership in recovery management. On paper, our principles (which people don’t realise have been around since the late eighties) tell us that it should be community led, which is in line with a participatory approaches to governance, and the role of government is to facilitate. So that’s the theory, it’s well taught, well written about in our courses and our manuals, and carefully handed down from generation of recovery manager to generation of recovery manager.

So when a disaster of moderate scale occurs, scores of recovery managers around the country have been anywhere from bewildered to disappointed to outright angry on reading a media release from the Minister’s office announcing a taskforce or that a retired general will head up the recovery efforts. Hang on this wasn’t in the plan. I don’t know about you, but when General’s take over and run a civilian activity, that’s usually called a coup.

The notion of taskforce is also interesting.. Say the word slowly. Task. Force. Firstly there is the military connotation, the use of force to fix a situation. Then there is the focus on tasks to be done. This fits well with our popular conception of disasters, you lose stuff, you replace stuff, and it needs to done quickly. And who is best to lead that, someone who will get things done, and will brook no questioning. A general.

As these task- focussed entities find their feet, compelled by a fear of headlines screaming “too slow”, they then bump up against communities that are in shock, are bewildered, maybe  angry, are not ready for tasks to be done to them, or are used to participating the civil processes that take place in their community. It can then get messy, “generals” aren’t used to the organised chaos of  communities (as Russell Dynes as described), and the sense I get is that community members shrug their shoulders, and lose confidence in the process, and do what they can to make it work.

My first experience of this was the 2003 Alpine Bushfires, when after the first month of the fires (which we had managed through my team and our regional offices) there was a Ministerial Taskforce appointed, with a secretariat sitting on the same floor as us, not really talking to us (they had their riding instructions to get on with the job). It was a fascinating process, as there were media releases after media releases announcing programs, funding etc , which the regional guys or local government people would call us and ask for details, and we would have to shrug our shoulders and say dunno. Eventually we worked it out, but it wasn’t a good advertisement for “joined up government”. And I’d have to say, my team, and I were pretty bewildered, one day we were running the show, the next day we weren’t. It’s frustrating, and also dents your pride. “What, you think I’m not up to it?” did go through my mind at the time. Then we got over it pretty quickly, as we were still dealing with the recovery from the Bali Bombings, and the Drought.

One of the things I find fascinating is that we need to appoint someone to run the show after the curtain has gone up. To my mind, you don’t appoint your lead role in Henry V at the Old Vic in Act 1. They need to familiarise themselves with the script, the other actors, understand the nuances of the play, and the directors wishes and foibles, then rehearse, have sleepless night s, come to terms with the performance space,  the technical difficulties of mounting the production, do publicity, then it’s opening night. It takes a lot of effort to get the show on the road.

Recovery is no different. It is equally technically challenging as bushfire management, and probably more complex, but one of the things we don’t see happen is that we appoint a Fire Chief as the fire is roaring over the hill and bearing down on a town. I think part of the problem is that the way senior officials generally frame recovery is that it is a either a welfare activity, and that  a bunch of welfare agencies will dish out some stuff, and after a few weeks or a month, it will all go away. Or it’s a reconstruction activity, so we just need to let the engineers get to work. It is not conceptualised as a complex community development process, and hence is not resourced with appropriate levels of skilled staffing.

When I started in Department of Human Services in 1999, there were 2 ½ staff in the recovery unit, and our regional offices had the role added to the job descriptions of people in corporate services. Even in Victoria, which has embraced holistic recovery management for a good decade longer than most other states, the recovery management role was located in corporate services, because a prime focus was still the payment of grants. So you wanted hardnosed admin types paying the grants as though the money was coming out of their own pockets, rather than those welfarey types (like me) . Our corporate staff were great in their ability to embrace the broader concept of recovery, (and very committed to it…an amazing bunch) but in the end they were mainly accountants, and often struggled with some of the concepts.

So I think  then faced with the true impacts of a disaster, which are extraordinarily complex and challenging, and realising that the existing investment in recovery workforce is relative poor, the decision makers react by “appointing someone to lead” I think they also feel as though this gives them a sense of being back in control. It’s an announceable, and hopefully one that they feel the community will be comforted by. These appointments are made out to be independent, but you can bet your bottom dollar, they are all a safe pair of hands for the government of the day. What is also not understood by those appointing is that these are also long term roles, and what that means. I recall there was some negative press when Peter Cosgrove shifted to a part chair of the Cyclone Larry Taskforce after a number of months. Whatever the reality of the circumstances, perceptions are the key.

We, of course, don’t know what is best because we haven’t done any research in this area, at all. I have done my own straw poll over the years, asking friends and family which of these two options they find more reassuring  1. Announce a prominent person to lead a recovery taskforce, or 2. Have a senior official already in place, with the right authority and experience. Almost everyone has opted for the second one, saying that it gives the impression that this is what you have planned for, and that you have the right skills in place, and you are ready to go. A number of people have said to me the first option smacks of panic and being underprepared. I’m surprised that the punters can see this, but the adviser can’t.

It is interesting, in Victoria, that was the case. The State Recovery Coordinator is a senior official of government, with some authority under the Emergency Management Act. In the Black Saturday Bushfires, that role was shunted aside for the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority (as were a lot of the existing arrangements, making it terribly confusing for people who had been dealing with these issues for years.). The argument goes, well this is so big, we need a special authority with a special person to run it. What the argument won’t tell you is, like any “start up” you cannot build a fully functioning entity from day one. And unfortunately, the people affected need this confidence, they need to know what it is that they are dealing, so that they can make decisions about their own recovery, both personal and community, with confidence. It takes too long to scale up these entities, to get in place processes, as well as have the people who understand the intricacies and complexities of recovery.

A small statutory authority, led by a senior official  with stature and good presence and communication skills (in the same way we have a chief fire officer)  with staff with expertise in social, built, natural, and economic recovery, and community engagement and development, and with plans to quickly scale up (and down) depending upon the scale, that supports local arrangements, and through these arrangements can provide the resources to facilitate community led recovery, that’s how  I see it could works. For small scale, it is merely advisory and supportive, for larger scale it becomes coordinating and supportive of local efforts, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one”

5 thoughts on “When the Generals Talk

  1. John,

    Great post/paper. You are right, you are ‘not the only one’! Fortunately, I think there is a growing number of people who share the insights and feelings you have so well expressed.

    But the number is not growing quickly enough – and I fear that those numbers don’t necessarily include the ‘right’ people, the ones who make and implement the policies.

    Keep fighting the good fight (as you have been for many years!). The message will eventually get through, to the benefit of the communities we serve.

    Bonne chance,



  2. Dudley, thanks!. I think are on the money with it being about the “right” (and yuo of all people have heard enough of me railing over the years why won’t they listen to me….!). As we have spoken of in those rare moments of downtime, the advisers that decision makers surround themselves have neither the grounding, nor the life skills to understand the broader implications of what they are advising. I think education in disaster management, particularly the governance aspects needs to extend into universities at the undergrad level, in courses such as economics, law, political science, engineering (all the “non traditional” areas),as they these gals and guys are the decision makers of the future.

    All the courses need to do (because let’s face it, how many of us remember detail from our undergrad lectures), is impart the message “ask somebody who knows about this shit, before making a decision”

    I do think this area of governance and expectations is ripe for some serious study of community attitudes in respect to these issues. THis will help in shaping the arguments to policy and decision makers.

    It’s also why the forums like what you run with Monash are so important, to share these issue.

    We will get there!


  3. John, I agree! As someone who was thrust into the start up recovery authority there is much to tell about being the unpopular ‘pop up’ entity!

    It would be great to see acknowledgement of the need for standing recovery management which can somehow (magically?) scale up to meet a major disaster when and if it is needed.

    I think the challenge, and you refer to it, is that the standing entity needs to be well known by the public and government before the event. Although your vox pop of very reasonable people all suggested that they would rather ‘Have a senior official already in place, with the right authority and experience’, I think some further testing of this concept would find that they would need to somehow have a sense of early trust in this person. The cynical me hears a wacky media conference along the lines of, ‘…but don’t worry, we have this recovery team who normally work on recovery policy and smaller events down the back of one of our public service corridors, but they’ll be great for this gig.’

    I did some research a few years ago on unconscious community expectations of emergency services and I remember writing about the ‘brand’ of emergency services and its alignment to ‘super heroes, here to save the day’. Not realistic (although I do love them all), but I think the desire for government announcements perhaps comes from a need to find a new superhero so that everyone can breathe easy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s