What Haiti teaches us about the 'whole of government'

Cooperative spirit needed at home to meet everyday challenges of government

There can be no minimizing the devastating effects of the earthquake in Haiti. The horrific personal losses and devastation to the island have been well chronicled in sometimes powerful and moving stories. So, too, has the overwhelming response of the U.S. government and the nation as a whole. Although there is always frustration at the pace of action, there is little question that the response has been inspiring and remarkable.

However, there is an aspect to the story that has attracted relatively little attention but which nonetheless offers a relevant lesson for some of the important policy debates now under way in Washington: The government’s response to Haiti has been an excellent example of what has been called in some quarters the “whole-of-government” approach.

Our government’s response has involved a broad network of capabilities and people — perhaps far broader than many Americans recognize. We saw our military move quickly to provide support, and we saw and heard about specialists from across federal, state and local governments who also responded immediately. But that’s not all.

There were — and are — hundreds of federal employees who quickly deployed to support the recovery efforts. Many are volunteer participants in special emergency relief corps from across the government who pack up and head out when an emergency arises.

Beyond that, there are the nongovernmental organizations, such as CARE and the American Red Cross, which have renowned emergency relief capabilities. And as they always do, they moved with remarkable speed to bring the support they could to the crisis. And, of course, there are government contractors, who have played such an essential role in providing emergency relief, logistics support, communications, medical services, support for our troops, and more, and who will be essential to the reconstruction process. Many of these same firms have been at the forefront of providing critical life and other support to our troops overseas or providing specialized development expertise around the world. They — our civil servants, NGOs and our military — all make up the whole of government. It has actually been inspiring to watch each of these communities of capability coalesce as they have under federal leadership, again responding in the most trying of times.

Of course, all of this organized activity has been buttressed by a remarkable outpouring of individual and institutional philanthropy. Ordinary people have donated unprecedented amounts of money and supplies, while companies have donated skills and vital equipment, such as water purification systems, doctors and more. But in the end, it is the whole of government, the network of experts and providers, that lies at the heart of our response and which will lie at the heart of the long rebuilding process ahead.

As some government agencies and others continue their discussions about the role of government, its contractors and NGOs, the Haiti experience offers an important lesson. Haiti reminds us that we don’t live in an era of either/or. Haiti reminds us yet again that our government is the sum of many parts, and that meeting the missions of government today and into the future will require all of these parts working together, in a true partnership. It is a lesson that applies not only to the massive response to this horrendous natural disaster but also to the everyday work of government at home. As our government seeks to modernize, improve efficiency and deliver ever higher-quality service and security to the public, it will indeed require the whole of government.

Reader Comments

Fri, Mar 19, 2010 Paul Alexandria, VA

While we can all debate the role of government, its core mission, how efficient or effective it is or isn't, and the like, we need to remember that our government has endured, over our history as a nation, to serve its citizens when most challenged - in times of war, in times of disasters. From all reports, the government of Haiti ceased to exist in the aftermath of the earthquake. We need to count our blessings for our "whole of government" as Stan describes it, and be thankful to the civil servants, military, contractors, and volunteers that have always been there when needed.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above.

WT Daily

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.