Problem-solving requires cooperation, says retired Adm. Thad Allen

Agencies have to work together and marshal their respective strengths to find effective solutions to government problems, retired Coast Guard commandant Adm. Thad Allen told federal employees on Monday at a conference in Washington.

"Nobody owns all of the means in government to solve the problems," said Allen. The retired admiral gave the keynote address at Government Executive Media Group's Excellence in Government conference.

Allen spoke from experience as the national incident commander for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the top federal official for response and recovery operations after Hurricane Katrina. "You can charge everyone up on a mission…but we need to make sure we create a cross-government approach. There is a risk that everyone walks out of there thinking that they're a Blues Brother," he said, referring to a tendency among agencies toward improvising, or going it alone, that isn't always useful in a crisis.

Allen believes the federal government needs leaders who can optimize performance at their own agencies, but during a crisis, subordinate individual goals to a "whole-of-government" approach. Another key to successful problem-solving in government lies in careful analysis of the issues before devising solutions. When charged with coordinating response and recovery operations after Hurricane Katrina, Allen did not have a clear assignment. He decided the first thing to ask was, "What is it we're trying to fix?"

During Monday's speech, Allen also stressed the importance of turning crisis response methods into standard operating procedures. He adopted strategies used in the U.S. response to the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year, such as taking control of the airspace, and applied them to cleanup efforts after the BP oil spill.

In times of crisis, and on a daily basis, Allen said members of the public are going to base their perceptions of government on personal transactions, as they did after oil spill. Alluding to the dissatisfaction among Gulf Coast residents with contractors staffed in the region, the retired commandant said, "You cannot outsource core values -- empathy and compassion -- to a third party."

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