On my way into work this morning, I was listening to an NPR interview with Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen. He was speaking with NPR’s Steve Inskeep about the lessons he’s taken from overseeing the government’s response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Allen was also involved in Hurricane’s Katrina and Rita, as well as in the U.S. response to the earthquake in Haiti. At the end of the interview, Thad Allen highlighted the need to ‘better integrate the passion, resources and commitment’ of the millions of people living in this country that want to do something in the wake of disasters like the Oil Spill. Given the growing use of the web, social media and the involvement of NGO’s and faith-based organizations, major public participation is now a mainstay. As we continue to respond to man-made and natural disasters, especially those events that impact our environment, harnessing this incredible energy is essential.
Whether the government wants to involve us or not, the public is a readily informed and ever-present participant that isn’t going to stop paying attention. According to Thad Allen, if the government does not readily engage this active and vocal entity, a breakdown of unity will result, creating a disaffected population.
So, why not harness the power of this unity?
Thad Allen, pulling from President Bush 41’s thousand points of light rhetoric, states that we should take these thousands of points of light and make them into a laser beam.
The concept of “unity of effort” is defined as the state of harmonizing efforts among multiple organizations working towards a similar objective. Typically, “unity of effort” or “unity of command” is used in the military context, but the idea of achieving shared common objectives through a unified force can and should be applied to issues facing our Nation today.
There was a tremendous amount of frustration on behalf of the American public in the wake of BP’s handling of the Gulf Oil Spill response and a healthy dose of anger directed towards the government as well. Citizens wanting and willing to help, including those professionally trained in areas of need, were precluded from helping with the clean up and information coming out of the area seemed tainted by the spin of PR.
As a result of these roadblocks, citizens turned to various crowdsourcing techniques to assess and communicate the situation themselves. The environmental group the Louisiana Bucket Brigade called upon “citizen journalists” to help track the oil spill. The group GrassRootsMapping created home-made weather balloons to help track the spill. The premier GIS mapping company ESRI created an oil spill tracking site that citizens were able to update with their own data. In the face of resistance, the public found ways to be involved.
So when will the government-led efforts be integrated with citizen and corporate-led efforts?
The launch of Challenge.gov is one example of the US government trying to involve citizens by soliciting ideas and solutions to challenges facing the country. The site allows people to vote and offer solutions for problems posted by different government agencies in return for financial and other incentives. It is too early to tell if this kind of effort truly speaks to desire on the part of the public sector to involve private citizens, but it is indicative of the changing landscape of public participation.
As we collectively face growing environmental problems and continued economic pains, we can stand together asking not only for viable solutions, but offering ourselves and our abilities as part of the solution. Although it may sound a bit idealistic, when we as citizens stand together in support of common goals and objectives, the unity of our efforts will have to be recognized.