Thursday, October 30, 2014

Breaking Down the Red Cross's Response to the Damning ProPublica Report of 10/29

As someone who served as an Americorps volunteer with FEMA in the five months following Tropical Storm Sandy, the waste, mismanagement of resources, inadequate treatment of volunteers and prioritization of "looking good" over "doing good" described in ProPublica's article is completely unsurprising. FEMA was guilty of all of these sins, so it is not surprising that FEMA's close partner organization is also guilty of those sins.

When a large organization is guilty of bureaucratic waste and mismanagement, the last thing you would expect them to do is make a honest accounting of their sins and own up to what went wrong. The Red Cross, in this respect, is no different from any other agency that has been caught out.

Let's parse their anodyne, noncommittal, deeply outraged response, shall we? Actual lines from the press release (which is here) will be in bold, commentary in regular text.

It is regrettable

Translation: We wish you hadn't aired our dirty laundry.

that ProPublica and NPR have used the two-year anniversary (sigh) of Superstorm Sandy's landfall to paint a distorted and inaccurate picture of a Red Cross response that helped tens of thousands of people who urgently needed our services with hot meals, shelter, relief supplies and financial support.

No doubt the Red Cross did indeed do this. ProPublica even mentions in its article that the Red Cross, when challenged, likes to throw out huge numbers of people it says it helped--and that shouldn't be discounted or underplayed. At the same time, doing a lot of things right does not obliterate the things they did very, very wrong--like allowing sex offenders into childrens' play areas, for example, or wasting 30% of available meals ostensibly for disaster survivors. Just because you did a lot of good is not a valid argument that you didn't also do some bad. It's more a PR shield than an actual response--note that their objection is to "the inaccurate picture" painted--and the Red Cross doesn't respond directly to most of the specific charges from ProPublica.

Our mission is to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies, and that alone is what guided our service delivery decisions during Sandy and during every emergency. [Italics theirs]

This is the exception. They say this so boldly--alone--but then why is there an internal Red Cross document that alludes to Red Cross Headquarters "diverting assests [sic] for public relations purposes"? Why is there an email from a Mass Care officer, a guy on the ground, from 11/18/12, reporting that 15 of 37 trucks were diverted at one point for public relations purposes? Not responding directly to these pieces of evidence--which come, again, from within the Red Cross--seems a lot to me like the "ignore it and hope it goes away" approach to PR, which is an idiotic way to approach the problem. Repeat after me: The existence of the ProPublica article is not a PR problem that you have to solve. The problems within your organization that lead to poor service are the real problems that you need to solve.

We are proud of the work of our 17,000 Sandy workers – nearly all of them volunteers– who served more than 17.5 million meals and snacks, distributed 7 million relief items, and provided 74,000 overnight stays in shelters. Two years after Sandy’s landfall, the Red Cross has spent or committed to spend $310 million, which is 99 percent of the $311.5 million raised for our Sandy response. 

Yes, true, but how much was wasted? And given the Mass Care officer's testimony that 30% of meals were wasted, one wonders if that 17.5 million number covers meals actually served, or merely the total number of meals ordered, without accounting for waste and inefficiency? How do situations like the one described in the article, where a Red Cross kitchen serving 22,000 meals was ordered to scale up to 220,000 the next day, count? Would you count the number of meals that actually made it into the mouths of disaster survivors (something like 70,000 Danishes delivered, half of those wasted, according to ProPublica) or would you ring up 220,000 on your balance sheet and say you did that? This is a real question because the internal report revealed that the size of the disaster "crippled" the Red Cross's ability to tabulate what it had accomplished, and apparently the Red Cross is unusually opaque when it comes to telling the public how it actually spends its money. That $310 million that was spent lost some percentage to administrative overhead and waste, but it's impossible to tell how much from the numbers they provide the public.

And our surveys show that the overwhelming majority of the people we served had a positive experience with the Red Cross and the services we provided.

Will you make those surveys, or aggregated numbers from them, available to the public? What was your surveying methodology? Who was asked, and when? Is it possible that survivors rated you well on the whole because you fed and sheltered them during and after the storm, but nevertheless had concerns about your management? What is an "overwhelming majority", on a percentage basis of the people asked? Do the surveys contain leading questions? Is there a place for survivors to provide suggestions, and have you taken those suggestions into account? Again, as a random schmuck, I have no reason to reflexively believe you when you're in full cover-your-ass mode and won't make the details that back up what you're saying available to me.

In the chaotic first few hours and days after a disaster, it is impossible to meet every need, especially on a disaster as big as Sandy. When problems occur, we try to fix them quickly, and we always strive to do better. 

This is true, and should not be underplayed (although that is their job). But there is a difference, as my fellow FEMA Corps members and I learned in the FEMA response, between problems that are inherent to the crazy post-disaster environment and problems created by bureaucratic mismanagement, lousy priorities (I point again to the food trucks diverted for photo opportunities), and infighting. I'm glad that the Red Cross says it fixes problems, but since it has not acknowledged in this release that any of the problems outlined in the article actually exist, that tends to make me pessimistic about whether those problems were actually fixed.

As we do with all major disasters, the Red Cross proactively sought feedback from hundreds of volunteers, staff and others as part of a thorough review of its response to Sandy. Based on that feedback, and our own evaluation, we implemented changes to continuously strengthen our service delivery. 

'Continuously strengthen' is such a mealymouthed phrase; it describes fixing problems without ever acknowledging that there were problems that needed to be fixed. I don't have much to say about this part; it's simply impossible to judge its veracity until the next major disaster. It is possible that the Red Cross made some changes, as the internal review conducted away from the cold light of the press was far more honest and candid than the Red Cross was willing to be in this release. However, when the first item on the list of "Hinderances" [sic] is the Red Cross National Headquarters, whose sins include "Direct involvement in Service Delivery decisions without local understanding" and "Diverting assests [sic] for public relations purposes"... well, I don't feel like the public has much reason to be optimistic. If the senior leadership is part of the problem, what are the odds that they spontaneously became part of the solution without any outside pressure to change, up until this point? It smells to me like there's plenty of work to be done here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Brave Crusaders and Amoral Idiots

I have not seen very many Hollywood movies about the days of slavery, or the days of the civil rights movement. The only one I've seen recently is Steven Spielberg's Amistad, where the focus of the movie is the legal question of whether rebelling slaves aboard a slave ship can be legally considered people. Of course, the good guys win, against great odds. But what struck me most about the movie was the character and tenor of the opposition. To the early-21st-century white liberal viewer, like me, they appear hopelessly backwards. Their arguments don't make sense. There's nothing they can say that would make their side of the case, denying legal personhood to rebelling slaves, okay.
Immediately after the movie, I wondered what modern-day issues of civil or women's or sexual rights are going to look equally one-sided in the Hollywood movies of fifty years from now. I feel like it's common among my friends to look forward and say "Well, the people fighting gay marriage are on the wrong side of history. Boy, aren't they going to look like idiots in a generation or two". And they probably are.
Something that's been on my mind for a few days, though, is the opinions of the other side. By virtue of being young and liberal and socializing mostly with young liberals who share my views, I don't often run into anybody who disagrees with me on issues like 'Should gay people be allowed to get married?'. There was a column, however, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, right after the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeals of several states whose bans on gay marriage had been struck down. The column was by a supporter of the bans, and you can read it here.
I disagree completely with this column, but that's not why I'm posting it. For the first time in a considerable time, I was reading the genuine, unfiltered opinions of The Other Side. And for the first time in a considerable time, I began to understand why they believe what they believe. You read through the column and see lines like these: "Marriage is not a creation of the state — it existed before the state. The state appropriately seeks to protect it. Marriage is the union of one man and one woman, and it matters to the state because that's the only sexual union naturally capable of producing children — Wisconsin's future taxpayers, workers, leaders and more."
Again, I'm not arguing in favor of this statement. I disagree with it. I believe marriage is a human institution created for human reasons, and it is up to humans to decide when to change the laws that govern us; I also believe that the state does not have a compelling interest in regulating marriage, as expressed by the judge who rejected the State of Wisconsin's arguments on those grounds.
But I read that paragraph, and I read that column, and for the first time in a considerable time I began to understand the internal logic that goes into the arguments with which I disagree. Of course if you believe marriage exists above the state, you disagree with a legal effort to change what it means. Of course if you genuinely believe that kids are better off with one man and one woman as parents, studies be damned, you'll structure your beliefs based on that. That's why the author believes what she believes, and that is where the opposition comes from. It's a popular pastime among liberal columnists (well, columnists on both sides, really) to pick at the underlying reasons why people believe what they believe; well, conservatives are afraid of change, so of course they oppose gay marriage. Well, liberals can't rely on themselves, so of course they support big government. It's a popular sport. This is something different: actually trying to understand why the opposition believes what they believe.
It's fair to say that I'm too far removed from this issue and too dispassionate about it to really hold this view. After all, if the state restricted my right to marry, or sit at a lunch counter, because of my religion or skin color, it's fair to say I'd be less interested in understanding why the Other Side believes what they believe, and more interested in overturning the real-world consequences of those beliefs that interfered with my life.
But this is important because, regardless of the Hollywood version of events where the Amistad opposition is reduced to helpless flabbling and eventually melts into the background while John Quincy Adams orates magnificently about the rights of man, there is always going to be opposition to what we like to call "progressive" social changes. There are always going to be people who dig in their heels to it, based on tradition, religion, or some other reason. I was just reading the Supreme Court decision in a case called Lombard, et al. vs. Louisiana, a civil rights case from the sixties, involving the state of Louisiana trying to punish four activists (three black, one white) who sat at a whites-only lunch counter and asked to be served. The opinion, authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren, contained the following quotes from Louisiana authorities:
"The Superintendent of Police issued a highly publicized statement which discussed the incident and stated that "We wish to urge the parents of both white and Negro students who participated in today's sit-in demonstration to urge upon these young people that such actions are not in the community interest. . . . [W]e want everyone to fully understand that the police department and its personnel is ready and able to enforce the laws of the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana." 2 On September 13, [373 U.S. 267, 271] four days before petitioners' arrest, the Mayor of New Orleans issued an unequivocal statement condemning such conduct and demanding its cessation. This statement was also widely publicized; it read in part:
"I have today directed the superintendent of police that no additional sit-in demonstrations . . . will be permitted . . . regardless of the avowed purpose or intent of the participants . . . .
. . . . .
"It is my determination that the community interest, the public safety, and the economic welfare of this city require that such demonstrations cease and that henceforth they be prohibited by the police department." 
After Lombard, et. al. won the case, these people didn't just go away, right? That's the Mayor and the Superintendent of Police. The Mayor was a three-time candidate for Governor of Louisiana; the Superintendent of Police was active in public life for decades afterward, eventually becoming a member of the New Orleans City Council. You read a retrospective like this about white parents rushing to pull their children out of newly integrated schools. The parents didn't just go away when the court case was won, right? They presumably were still out there, grudgingly living with the new reality, fighting tooth and nail every change for the betterment of black New Orleanians. 
Community interest. Public safety. Economic welfare. There are always going to be these kinds of respectable veneers for racism, sexism, religious discrimination, and all the other evils. I'm suggesting that without giving in to those evils, it is worth our while, once in a while, to shed the Amistad perspective of the progressive liberal side of things as brave crusaders opposed by amoral idiots and adopt a perspective of people opposed by other people who happen to be wrong. I truly believe that the way to change peoples' minds is to understand what they believe and why. Only then can you effectively argue against it. It's so much more effective than just yelling at each other. Remember, the Other Side thinks you're crazy, too, and they're not going away. They don't shamefacedly walk offscreen at the end of the movie and disappear forever. They're going to keep resisting and resisting and resisting. If your view is that they're all hopeless old lunatics and eventually they'll all die and young liberals will reign supreme, well, that's great. In the meantime, they're going to be here, and we might as well try to understand what they believe. Not, for the umpteenth time, because we agree, but because "it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it", as the quote attributed to Aristotle goes, and because understanding the Other Side's views will help you engage with them and hopefully change them. That's how you move beyond partisanship, that's how you get off cable news and late-night television, that's how you get people to talk to each other, that's how you change minds.