Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Leadership Vacuum, And We Don't Mean Hoover

The city council held an oversight hearing on the Bloomberg administration's response to the Christmas blizzard, and you have to give the Bloombergistas credit-this time they showed up. The hearing usefully dramatized what happens when there is a leadership vacuum-and the absence of any command structure played a key role in the city's failure to call a snow emergency.

The Politicker reports: "Under tough questioning from members of the City Council, members of the Bloomberg administration admitted that there was a failure of communication during last month's storm, one exacerbated by the fact that a number of high-level officials were out of town for the Christmas holiday.Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith deflected questions about who was in charge of the day-to-day operations of the city since Mayor Bloomberg and Goldsmith were away for the Christmas holiday. He did note, however, that neither he or nor the mayor were aware of the decision by the Sanitation and Transportation Departments to not call a snow emergency. "The mayor did not have the information he deserved," Goldsmith said."

But the question that was deflected is the most crucial one of all; and the deputy elides the central factor in all of this-the absence of the mayor. An on-premise mayor will have all of the information he needs, it is only when you are out of town and out of touch that you find yourself so out of the information loop.

The NY Times elaborates: "Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith admitted to a host of errors on the part of the Bloomberg administration, including a failure to adequately brief Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg about the city’s response to the storm. As City Council members pounded the administration with questions, Mr. Goldsmith, who is in charge of operations, acknowledged that the chain of command was murky; that the failure to declare a state of emergency hampered the response; that city workers were not deployed adequately and private contractors should have been called in; and that officials waited too long to plan for the storm."

Did they get anything right? Apparently not: "The day brought a series of stunning admissions from an administration that is not accustomed to issuing apologies. Officials acknowledged that the mayor had not been kept in the loop at crucial moments, that the city had failed to prepare an adequate supply of snowplows and that the information given to the public was often confusing."

What's fascinating is that, as far as the admitted rationale for the failure to declare a snow emergency is concerned-finally recognized as the linchpin of the over all failure-is that the mayor remained out of the loop as late as Monday, claiming that it wouldn't have been effective to declare said emergency. The NY Daily News has the story on the city's "flat footed" response: "Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith admitted for the first time Monday that the city should have declared a snow emergency ahead of the monster blizzard that ravaged the city last month: "Declaring an emergency could have been a triggering event," confessed Goldsmith, the first of a string of Bloomberg administration officials to testify at an all-day inquisition by the City Council. Goldsmith said an emergency declaration would have put all agencies on high alert - and warned New Yorkers not to drive."

It was refreshing, though, that the Bloombergistas manned up on the failure: "Goldsmith outlined a 15-point plan to make the city respond better in the future -- from creating a central tow truck dispatch to setting up protocols for the 911 system to handle extreme situations. "Look, we didn't do the job you expected," Goldsmith said. "There were a lot of mistakes. We acknowledge those. We want to do better in the future."

As the NY Post reports, Goldsmith said that this snowfu was a systematic failure: "He blamed a series of systemic breakdowns for the disastrous outcome...He said the city should have declared a snow emergency the day before the storm hit and cited "insufficient" communication between agencies."

But this begs the leadership vacuum question-and whether the decision to not declare an emergency was the right one-at the time. The deputy thinks that it was: "Given the information available at the time, the decision not to declare an emergency was understandable. However, based on what we know now, an emergency declaration could have yielded a more successful response," said Goldsmith."

We would say that the failure to declare was, "understandable," only owing to the the clueless nature of command-and not as a result of the snow on the ground. Put simply, what the city, "knows now," is what it should have known then-if anarchy wasn't the rule of thumb. The WSJ explicates this further: "At a City Council hearing examining the city’s poor response to post-Christmas storm that crippled the city, Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith said officials feared an emergency declaration would have put more cars on the road. But the decision was not guided by a “clear understanding of what powers and actions such declarations would enable amongst city agencies and other entities, and how the public would be required to act as a result,” Goldsmith said."

And his further comments underscore our critique: "Through our review over the past two weeks, we believe that declaring an emergency could have provided a triggering event for those city agencies and other entities that utilize such a declaration as a catalyst for action, and by the public, which potentially might have heard the word ‘emergency’ and limited their driving,” he said."

Clearly the city's damning, "understanding at the time," was itself a product of the collapse of the emergency response command structure-and all roads here lead to Rome; which in this case has been transported to an island in the Atlantic. The city's failure can be attributed to-and almost solely so-the mayor's absence. Everything else, as they say, is merely commentary.