The Principal Federal Official (PFO) was a post-9/11 initiative designed to put a senior official on top of the operational response to major disasters to herd all the cats. Apparently, the idea of a PFO has fallen on hard times. If the word on the street is right, the current thinking in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is that if there is a really big oh-my-God, the secretary will be the PFO and we’ll leave it at that. That is frankly a really bad idea. First, who runs the department while the secretary is acting as PFO? Second, what happens if there is more than one OMG at a time?
There is a legitimate need for a “real” PFO. In any disaster, there are operations and politics—it’s stupid to deny that both don’t go on steroids when disaster strikes. It is also naïve to believe that the two can be neatly separated. The Venn Diagram will always show an overlap. The best way to mange the friction between the operational and the political is to have a leader experienced in both worlds—a skilled practitioner who knows how things are supposed to work and understands the politics of disaster—read Thad Allen. And they have to get the politics part right—not that they should practice politics. They should in fact be scrupulously non-partisan, but they must skilled at dealing with politicians.
PFOs don’t happen by accident. They have to be groomed for the task. It doesn’t appear that our government is doing that. That means when a serious or catastrophic disaster strikes, we might not have the right leaders to lead, and we’ll be missing the grease that cuts the friction between operational and political response.