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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Have We Become Weather Wimps?



As I write this, I am ensconced at home, debating whether to brave the icy roads in the Washington area to try to make it into the office. Local schools are closed and the federal government is on a two-hour delay, with its brand-new unscheduled telework policy also in place.

I'm reminded of a post by Steve Kelman last week over at Federal Computer Week's Lectern blog, in which he asked the question, "Are we becoming a nation of blizzard wimps?" Kelman lamented the practice, common for years in the Washington suburbs, of announcing school closings before a flake of snow has fallen, and noted that this approach is now spreading nationwide.

"I think the older attitude in Boston," Kelman writes of the city where he lives, "was to wait for the snow to arrive, throw at it all the snow cleaning capacity we have, and see how much progress we've made. If after trying everything, the streets are impassable, then shut stuff down, but don't do it before you've tried. Have we started conceding defeat in advance?"

I'm a native Minnesotan who can't recall ever getting a snow day as a child, regardless of conditions. So I, too, marvel at how quick we are these days to pull the trigger on closures and delays. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that things are quite a bit different than when I was growing up.

First off, as Kelman admits acknowledges, weather forecasting is much more accurate than it used to be. Blaming the weatherman for inaccuracies is fun, but by any reasonable estimation, forecasts are much better than in the old days. (That, as Kelman admits affirms, is partly due to improvements at the National Weather Service and is therefore a government success story.)

In addition, there's just a lot more stress on local transit systems than previously, especially in and around Washington. In fact, I'm growing a little tired of being lectured by my family and friends back in the Midwest about how we can't handle a little winter weather out here in the East. The fact is that many, many more people have to be moved to and from work in cars, on buses and on trains in the Washington area than in your typical midwestern city.

On its best days, Washington can't handle the amount of traffic on its roads at rush hour. Throw in even a little bad weather, and things begin to break down very quickly. Schools don't have much choice but keep buses out of potentially dangerous situations. And as for the government, this is what telework is for, right?

Update 11:58 a.m.: I decided to come into the office. Roads were entirely clear (a big change in Washington in the last 20 years). One note: while drivers in the D.C. area generally are better in bad weather than in years past, some still need to take care with such measures as making sure the ice is off all of their car (not just the windshield) before hitting the road. It's frightening driving down the highway with dozens of cars looking like the space shuttle taking off, with huge ice chunks shearing off their sides.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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