EDITOR'S DESK: Where governance can help in a crisis

Tom Temin

You hear a lot about governance these days. Governance is a fancy word for who's in charge, what the chain of command is and what the rules are. Its importance has been made clear in the Great Hurricane after-the-fact soul searching.

As is always the case in these catastrophic situations, two realities develop: political and actual. The former is drearily predictable, with its bias toward blame.

The reality may take some time to sort out, but governance will come up.

Government'primarily the federal government'is expected to meet several overarching needs. One is urgent'the supplies and services needed to house, feed and otherwise care for displaced people. Another is secure, reliable and interoperable communications which, four years after 9/11 and more than a decade after the federal-building bombing in Oklahoma City, still isn't among first responders' tools.

Despite the urgency, government agencies need to be meticulous in awarding contracts for reconstruction. In life-and-death situations where hours matter, you could justify instant, sole-source awards. Otherwise, the rules'such as competition'still apply. If a construction or computer network company was asked by a commercial customer for a bid within 24 hours, that company would scramble to meet the deadline. Why should government expect less?

And agencies should reasonably expect to work 'round the clock to evaluate the bids. Now is the time for the government's career leadership to move quickly, but with care. Speed needn't negate quality or competition.

The communications gap is a classic if-we-could-put-a-man-on-the-moon situation. New York on 9/11 confirmed the need for interoperability. New Orleans revealed that even wireless is no good if AC power fails and batteries die. Here again, questions over who's in charge, whose standards apply and who will pay have impeded progress.

Governance and things like procurement rules get blamed for poor government response. But government can just as readily employ them for better performance.

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