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.

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