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Unstrategic Plans

We’ve got a plan for planning. Now let’s make a plan for doing.

When then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge announced in January that the department had completed the 426-page National Response Plan, he described it as the "playbook" for the nation's response to future disasters, man-made or natural. The document explains that it is "the core operational plan for national incident management."

But the National Response Plan, even with its detailed appendices and supplements, reads more like a strategic plan-or a plan for planning-than an operational plan. Consider the appendix on catastrophic situations. For medical equipment and supplies, the appendix explains: "Shortages of available supplies of preventive and therapeutic pharmaceuticals and qualified medical personnel to administer available prophylaxis are likely. Timely distribution of prophylaxis may forestall additional illnesses, and reduce the impact of disease among those already exposed." This is a statement of need, not a statement of action. An operational plan would explain by whom, when, where and how vaccines would be distributed to prevent the spread of disease.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it's no surprise that locals were frustrated by the preponderance of planning meetings that took place in the heat of the disaster. The federal government might have had a plan, but it was not an operational plan. It was a plan for planning.

Federal agencies are full of plans that are tossed out or ignored as soon as the events they were developed for begin. When events begin, the plans don't actually describe how things are going to get done. Plans need to be truly operational to be worth the paper they're printed on. Where are the supplies? Who's going to get them to workers? What's the phone number of the truck driver? Who's his backup? The midst of the crisis is not the time to do that kind of planning. Operational plans take care of the anticipated aspects of future events so leaders can be guiding lights for a disoriented public and focus on unanticipated developments.

Ed Richards, a professor at Louisiana State University, has reviewed efforts around the country to prepare for a pandemic like the avian flu, and he sees the same problem: no operational plans. "We want to move away from these very superficial disaster plans that do not address the operational needs of carrying out the response to public health needs at a sufficient level of detail, so that they can be audited ahead of time by the agencies involved and by the public to ensure the proper resources are in place," Richards says. "The time frame for re-sponding to a pandemic would be very quick. It's not the time to put together plans."

When Ridge announced the National Response Plan, he said, "In Washington, plans and reports, thick volumes all, get issued quite frequently, with regard to how you deal with incidents like this, and in some cases, the only way you could really keep safe is if you actually took those volumes and built a wall."

At least, in that case, a plan would result in action.