Kettl on Katrina

Q&A/The new director of the Fels Center of Government talks about the response to Hurricane Katrina and why it’s time to reevaluate what government can do for us.

Don Kettl

“There is a kind of deep feeling in the pit of the body politic that suggests that something’s not quite right.” 

On Labor Day weekend of 2001, Political Science Professor Don Kettl was wrapping up the introduction to his book, “The Next Government of the United States,” where he had written that changes—big or small—were coming.

A week later, on September 11, the public policy expert found out that indeed, the changes were big.
Kettl, who came to Penn in 2004 after 14 years at the University of Wisconsin and was appointed director of the Fels Center of Government in July, says that significant events in the past few years—from terrorism to the recent devastation of Hurricane Katrina—test our federal, state and local officials in unprecedented ways. “One of the most challenging things for future public leaders is understanding [problems], recognizing them, figuring out how to deal with them,” says Kettl. “We’ve proven over and over again that coming at new problems in old ways is not likely to be very successful. What we need are people with the instincts to recognize which strategies are most likely to be successful for things we simply have to do as a society.”

In his Fels classroom, Kettl draws on a multitude of different sources to shape his future leaders, including page 1 of The New York Times, the writings of Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison and ideas from ancient Greece. “I actually had a student who said he had been reading Madison, and ‘The Federalist Papers’ and was surprised how fresh it was,” Kettl says.

Don Kettl

Q. What makes a good leader? What do you try to teach the students here at Fels?

A. There are really two pieces that are important. One is a set of practical skills. As we learned the hard way with Hurricane Katrina, there are some basic things having to do with communication and financial management and … other basic tools of governmental action that if you don’t have under control, good things can’t happen. The other side of it is understanding the broader context within which public actions happen. In particular, what are the deep values that ought to drive the public service and the public good. What does the public interest really mean and how do we pursue it?

So what we try to do at Fels is train future leaders who know how to get things done, to know what things ought to get done and how to understand the important values that lie behind it so that when we make decisions, we can actually carry them out.

Q. There are politicians, lobbyists, business leaders on the Fels faculty—what do they bring to the program?

A. We have people like Wayne Smith who is a leader of the Delaware state legislature, one of our graduates, of whom we’re very proud, who can literally come from a debate on the floor of the legislature to Fels and explain to students what it takes to get a bill passed.

Q. What have we learned from Katrina?

A. One of the things that concerns me is that the lesson that a lot of people seem to have drawn from Katrina is that state and local governments don’t respond to these things very well and we need a strong federal role, led by the military. The military proved to be extraordinarily effective in this, but are we really learning the lesson that when things like hurricanes or avian flu happen, our first responders ought to be members of the armed forces? They need to be a part of the story but the notion that we need to deal out state and local governments, to walk away from two-and-a-half centuries of local self-governing in this country is both frightening to consider and I think fundamentally wrong-headed.

Q. There were so many different players involved here.

A. That’s right. We can think of the different players in the system—whether it’s state and local governments, federal government, the military, private sector players, nonprofit organizations, churches—as members of a symphony.

Every piece of music that somebody plays is different, and what we really need is a conductor who is skillful at bringing all the different pieces together in a way that produces a nice piece of music. Instead, what we got with Hurricane Katrina was everybody fighting over the baton.

Q. Do you support a Hurricane Czar, someone who will act as a conductor?

A. I think the idea of moving FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security was a mistake. Some things to which FEMA needs to respond might very well be terrorist attacks, but some things are tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and there’s pretty clear evidence at this point that moving FEMA into the Homeland Security Department has weakened its capacity to respond and its instincts about how best to respond. I think it requires a return to what was a pretty effectively functioning FEMA before the Department of Homeland Security was created.
We may very well be in the process of ramping up to spend $200 billion to rebuild the Gulf and there’s a fundamental question about how we’re going to do that. One thing I’m pretty sure about is that giving it to the Department of Homeland Security and [Secretary] Michael Chertoff is exactly the wrong way to do that. Their job is to worry about al Qaeda and terrorist attacks and … because its capacity was built around terrorist threats, it’s the one thing that I know is the wrong idea. What would make a lot more sense is something in the model of the Resolution Trust Corporation that was created back in the Savings and Loan crisis. It had three important characteristics—it was small and nimble, it was easy to work with and when it got the job done, it went out of business. We don’t need a permanent governmental authority to rebuild the Gulf forever. We need an organization that’s going to be flexible and nimble and effective that will get the job done and then, when the job is done, go away.

Q. Approval ratings of the President and Congress have sunk very low. Is there a disconnect between our leaders and what the people want?

A. The bigger disconnect may be between not only Americans and their leaders, but between their leaders and the broader institutions. What the public opinion polls increasingly are showing is for the most part, Americans like the member of Congress they elect. And most members of Congress, when they run for reelection, win. It’s the rest of the institution they can’t stand. They think that Congress as a whole is venal and ineffective.

Over and over again, we hear that citizens want more government that can solve problems more effectively. Now if that means that we need to rethink the tradeoff, that we need to think about the possibility of giving up a little bit of participation, a little bit of democracy, in exchange for greater effectiveness, or that we need to rethink our basic governing systems, then Americans may run for cover in the other direction, because we like self-government, we like the ability to reach out and touch our elected officials and have them be responsive.

Q. Is that what you’re working on?

A. I’m doing some work, in part, to think about what the broader lessons are to come out of Hurricane Katrina. I’ve got a book titled, “The Next Government of the United States,” that argues that essentially, we’ve gotten to the point where our systems are a pretty poor match for the problems we’re trying to solve. This has happened periodically throughout American life and whenever it’s happened, we’ve created a kind of mini-revolution to rethink what it is that we do and how we do it. And that time has come with a vengeance and it’s time to rethink what we do and how we go about doing it.

Q. The problem is obviously deeper than party politics?

A. It’s much deeper. We’ve always had partisan divisions. It’s important to remember that once upon a time, partisan divisions led to duels and that killed Alexander Hamilton. We have a long tradition of having partisan duels in this country and the only major change is we’ve decided politicians should stop killing each other over them. There is a kind of deep feeling in the pit of the body politic that suggests that something’s not quite right. We’re not exactly sure what it is, but we’ve got to make some fundamental changes.

Originally published on October 20, 2005