Giving Public Employees the Power to Use Their Judgment

There are risks, and there still must be accountability. But some leaders have shown the way.

As a public official, how can you empower the members of your staff to use their judgment and creativity and still maintain accountability? That’s a classic management issue, and there’s no one solution. But we can learn from leaders who have handled this well.

On Friday, Sept. 9, 2005, a few days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Admiral Thad Allen of the Coast Guard was appointed the principal federal official in charge. He said he was mortified by the scope of the destruction and amazed that thousands of first responders were wandering around, trying to be helpful but with no guidance.

Allen recounted how he dealt with that situation: He called an all-hands meeting. Some 2,500 people attended. He got up on a desk, explained his role and then said, “You need to listen to me — this is an order. You’re to treat everybody that you come in contact with that’s been impacted by this storm as if they were a member of your family — your mother, your father, your brother, your sister. … And if you do that, two things will happen: Number one, if you make a mistake, you will probably err on the side of doing too much. And number two, if anybody has a problem with what you did, their problem’s with me, not you.”

Some people gasped, Allen said. Some started to weep. There was a great feeling of relief, “because nobody had told them what was important, what was valued, what their roles should be, and that their boss was behind them,” he reflected.

It was a classic example of empowerment. These valiant first responders who’d been so humiliated in the press finally understood how to carry out their roles and that their leader had their backs.

Here’s a second example, one that’s far less dramatic and can be applied to everyday operations as well as emergencies:

When the Phoenix police department started to develop its community policing program in the 1990s, an assistant police chief found a simple way to empower the officers, to make it easy for them to go out of their way to help people, without having to run it up several management levels. He gave officers business cards. One side listed these five questions:

  • Is it right for the community?
  • Is it right for the department?
  • Is it ethical and legal?
  • Is it consistent with our values and policies?
  • Is it something I’m willing to be accountable for?

And on the flip side was the following:

If the answers to these questions are “YES,” don’t ask permission. JUST DO IT!

Community policing is about fostering trust and relationships. It requires officers to use their judgment rather than being rigidly rule-oriented. And if you want people to use judgment and still be accountable, you need to give them some clear guidance.

That’s what the card accomplishes. Suppose you’re a Phoenix officer patrolling in your squad car. You see an older lady walking slowly with some bags of groceries. Looks like she could use a lift. But you’re not supposed to allow someone like her to ride in the squad car. It violates the rules; you could get in trouble. With the new card, however, it’s a no-brainer. Of course you’d give her a ride. It helps her, and it shows her (and others) that you have a heart. And if your superior questions you, you can explain that you had checked off of the questions on the card.

The same five questions can help officers in high-risk situations, such as when they’re in hot pursuit of a suspect. Sometimes these situations call for an aggressive response; in others, de-escalation may be the better route. These are judgment calls, and reflecting on the five questions both gives officers support and holds them accountable.

If you try this approach with your own staff, how will you respond when (inevitably) mistakes occur? Yes, there are risks here. They can be minimized if you invest time in communicating with your staff about the questions or guiding principles and discussing “what-if” scenarios. Make such discussions a regular part of your staff meetings. Over time, staff will learn how far is too far and when to ask for help.

What about you? If you were to give your staff a few questions or guiding principles to empower them without losing accountability, what would they be?

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Avoiding Another Charlottesville

There is plenty that local officials can do to avert the kind of deadly violence that erupted in the Virginia city.

When chaos broke out during protests in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, many Americans wondered why police seemed to be standing back. Despite intelligence that neo-Nazis and other white-nationalist extremists planned to come to Charlottesville heavily armed and expecting violence, the city’s law-enforcement response was widely seen as inadequate.

Before the day was over, one Charlottesville resident had been killed and more than 20 people had been injured when an extremist drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. How, many wondered, could that have happened with almost a thousand city and state police deployed to maintain public order?

Stunned by the events that had unfolded in a usually quiet university town, local law-enforcement and political leaders across the country began serious efforts to “avoid another Charlottesville” should demonstrators bent on violence come to their communities. How can localities prepare for demonstrations that pose a clear threat to safety? Fortunately, there is a wealth of emergency management expertise to draw on:

Before the event:

• Gather intelligence on the demonstrators and their leaders. Tom Martin, a retired Virginia State Police captain and the state’s point person for several emergencies, puts it this way: “You have to learn who are these people are. What’s their track record? How reliable are they?”
• Communicate with the groups’ leaders, clarifying expectations. “One of the most significant things you can do when you have two kinds of volatile groups is to meet with them beforehand and establish strong lines of communications. You want to establish the rules of engagement,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
• Seek assistance from the state’s fusion center (an information-sharing entity staffed by intelligence and law-enforcement professionals). Fusion center staff can monitor the protest groups and tell local and state officials about their plans and their expected numbers.
• Based on the information gathered, develop a plan. It must include clear goals, a set of contingencies and a variety of possible law-enforcement responses. “It might be to contain and arrest, to prevent violence or to disperse crowds,” says Martin. Determine what streets will be closed, where counter-demonstrations can take place, and what areas residents should avoid.
• Keep local elected leaders in the communications loop with public-safety officials. Bill Leighty, a nationally recognized crisis-management expert, emphasizes the importance of forming relationships prior to the event: “You don’t want to be handing out business cards in the emergency operations center!” And invite crisis-management experts to advise law enforcement and political leaders. When things don’t go according to plan, it’s wise to have experienced people on hand.
• Create a unified command structure, with one person in charge. Typically, this will be the local police or fire chief. That person should maintain continual communications with law enforcement and political leaders.
• Engage state and local police in joint training. When violence is possible, the training must include the methods for dealing with it, from de-escalation to dispersing crowds and making arrests. Joint training builds trust among the agencies.
• Create extra response capacity. The governor can place the National Guard on standby. Local hospitals can postpone elective surgeries.

During the event:

There is no one formula for responding to events that become chaotic. But a few principles are clear:

• Establish one command post, where all information is integrated, viewed, discussed and disseminated to local and state leaders.
• Vet the information before acting on it. Initial information is often inaccurate. That’s what happened prior to riots in Virginia Beach in 1989. “The governor was told that a bunch of drunkards and drug addicts were coming,” Leighty recalls. “And that’s what law enforcement was expecting. Turned out it was a group of college kids looking for a good time.” Things nearly came to bloodshed at Virginia Beach because law-enforcement leaders were prepared to act on false information. Leighty concludes, “I always say, ‘if you’re planning for a riot, you’ll get a riot.'”
• Designate who will communicate to the community and media. That may be an elected official, a city manager or other top-level administrator, or the police chief. If the task is shared, there must be one consistent message, telling residents what’s known, dispelling false rumors and giving people the information they need to remain safe.
• Station significant numbers of police between hostile groups. Otherwise you’re asking for just the kind of trouble that Charlottesville experienced; there, city officials reported, demonstrators didn’t enter the park they had agreed to use, preventing police from creating a barrier between the two groups. And organize for maximum flexibility. For instance, if police don’t want to increase tensions by stationing officers in riot gear at a demonstration, ensure that those who are in riot gear can get to the site very quickly.

After the event:

When hostile groups collide, mistakes are likely. Blame doesn’t help, but a thorough and objective after-action review does. It’s essential to take a clear-eyed look at what happened: Did we follow the plan? Did we change tactics as events required? How well did we maintain communications? What are the key lessons learned?

There are no perfect examples of emergency management when hostile groups threaten violence. But when government leaders use these principles, most people will forgive them when the inevitable mistakes occur.