Perfidy

In the quiet of the evening, after a disappointing day at work for many IT professionals in Brisbane, there was subdued talk about the mistakes of relying on untested redundancy plans, communications intentions, the inadequacy of change management processes in emergency situations, and the complete failure of disaster recovery strategies based on worst-case scenarios that wilfully omitted force majeure because IT managers wouldn’t front boards and senior managers with nightmare scenarios that could never happen … until January 2011.

In that genteel and resigned atmosphere a lively discussion ensued among geeks who could speak to each other about technicalities as well as failed management holy grails.

These are rumours: lines of communication held open for politicians and bureaucrats to serve political needs above those of the people doing the dying and losing. Facilitation of news media above search and rescue. Repeated refusals by mangers to divert departmental web sites to plain HTML, low-bandwidth stand-bys to speed access times by people judged to be too low-tech to use 20th century technology when transistor radios were the only tools mentioned in disaster recovery plans. Miserly decisions about online redundancy because executive bonuses were tied to not exceeding budget in that area. Departments refusing to speak to each other until a Minister could be found to authorise or demand cooperation. IT staff with ideas told to shut up and wait because they were low priority (presumably after the first priority of enabling live to air actuality of grandstanding politicians — this is unashamedly my personal comment).

If that is really what we demand from our leaders, so be it. But then let no one complain at $6 loaves of bread that spoil within two days, $2 tomatoes, $8 avocados, and $4 litres of milk.

But if we actually expect more of our leaders, now is the time to appoint a project manager to each of the devastated towns and cities, and one who is not part of the cloying, stifling, handicapped fabric of government. Commandeer them instead from high-level private sector engineering and logistics projects that demand performance, and give them sweeping powers to act in timelines that may seem foreshortened to government instrumentalities, but that are vital right now to restore not only essential services, but some semblance of normal economic functioning.

These people should not be forced to work for nothing. No one should; the rising call to ‘draft’ unemployed people into slave labour work gangs is unconscionable. But the project managers should be incentivised on a points system for every jot of productive capacity restored. The metrics aren’t that hard to establish. Kilometres of highway restored and, then, re-built. Acres of crops planted with a real chance of harvest. Livestock replenishment per kilo reaching supermarkets. And so on. Two month project life-cycles with peer reviews (by project managers, not bureaucrats) and merciless pursuit of results, not pretty graphs that don’t translate into food in bellies or services restored. A real private sector solution, though it’s inevitable that public servants like politicians have to be involved. The virtue of independent project managers drawn from the private sector is that creative friction between them and public servants motivated by staying in office will yield fewer chances of misallocation of resources without scrutiny than an entirely politically-directed effort.

The project managers themselves will be severely overworked, and they need understudies or cut-outs, but they also need to be able to make hiring decisions for key personnel. A disaster is no time to commandeer seniority that might be without the requisite skills to meet the circumstances (which are far from normal, and downright unpredictable, even from a disaster-recovery perspective).

Beside them must be logistics specialists who can lay their hands on every bit of spare capacity in plant, equipment, and people they know how to deploy. Yesterday there were so many people volunteering to help that it became obvious that the organisers thought they could delegate the job to other volunteers, meaning that no-one thought about mass-labour dynamics: what could have been a formidable army of willing ‘shit-shovellers’ was un-led, therefore undirected, and admirable much more for back-breaking tireless efforts than their achievements.

Workers beating back primal forces need to go where that’s of most urgency. Others, with specific skills, need to be a few klicks down the road to enable their friends and neighbours, not on the same work-gang. There has never been a more important time to recognize that office workers, like myself, may not necessarily have more useful skills than backhoe operators, truck drivers, surveyors, engineers and local residents. We have to be willing to work with sheer muscle (such as we can offer) and by discipline. Only a dickhead would make volunteers do work that doesn’t help so obviously the navvies would refuse to help anymore. And no one except the media circus wants that outcome, because it would mean that we CAN rebuild Queensland quicker than it took 30 journalists to find an extension lead at the Premier’s boo-hoo press conference.

I had visions of online public reporting of reconstruction projects, with all project documentation that isn’t commercial and in confidence being open to public scrutiny.

Pip pulled me up and knelt on my chest at this stage to convince me that I was being a corporatist, krypto-fascist. I was taken aback more at the physical vehemence than the argument, her right index finger poking me in the chest as she spat out her accusations. But I have to agree. If I were to legislate everything I just talked about, I would be a fascists indeed, of the horrible kind I accuse ‘Mr Infected’ (Rudd) of being.

So I let it go. Nevertheless, I still can’t shake the feeling that a ‘privatised’ recovery effort couldn’t but be better than the shambolic, futile efforts of the Brisbane City Council (the largest council in the Southern hemisphere) and the State Government. A case in point: yesterday and today thousands of volunteers were transported to locations already brimming with workers, bus drivers not really being too sure where to go next, and coordinators (if you can call the blind leading the blind that) seemingly not too sure what they were supposed to be achieving. How hard can it be to monitor crowd numbers in various locations? Communication with walkie talkies? Maybe even webcams?

Never mind. What I did find today was the most remarkable summary of the catastrophe. A truly superior piece of journalism, even if I didn’t like the diction.

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Some Australian communities remained isolated by floodwaters and others braced for a new river peak Sunday as the nation’s third-largest city struggled to clean up the putrid sludge left behind by the receding Brisbane River.

More than 12,000 rubber-gloved volunteers hauled sodden debris from soaked homes, shoveled muck and swept and mopped muddy floors in some of the 30,000 homes and businesses that were flooded in Brisbane.

Officials have said the complete cleanup of the Queensland state capital would take months, and reconstruction up to two years.

The floods have caused 26 deaths in Australia’s northeast since late November, and 14 others are missing, most of them from a flash flood that hit towns west of Brisbane on Monday.

In the town of Grantham, described as the epicenter of the flash flood, 70 percent of the town remained cordoned off Sunday while searchers looked for the bodies of the missing.

The wall of water that swept through the town left behind dozens of smashed cars wedged in trees or bogged in fields, houses slipped off their foundations and masses of muddied belongings piling up as debris in the streets.

The engorged rivers that flooded Queensland towns have now swelled south into other states. In New South Wales, nearly 7,000 people have been isolated by floodwaters that overflowed highways and emergency services helicopters were air-dropping food and other supplies to residents.

In northern Victoria, a dozen small communities were sandbagging amid fears of high-peaking rivers and 3,000 people have evacuated.

An economist has estimated the Queensland floods’ cost could be as much as $13 billion, or 1 percent of gross domestic product, in Australia’s 1.3 trillion Australian dollar ($1.29 trillion) economy.

Mining companies say they won’t be able to meet contracts for coal, Australia’s biggest export, while Queensland farmers’ crop losses could push up world food prices.

Even more frightening for farmers is the Bureau of Meteorology’s prediction that rain could last through March due to the cool conditions in the central equatorial Pacific Ocean associated with the current La Nina — a weather system known for producing heavy rains. (Associated Press.)

It’s not elegant or lyrical, the way it deserves to be, but its damn fine reporting with an economy of words to die for.