System administration at scale

The planning and preparation necessary to create a Sysadmin force that can respond to disasters like Katrina and the aftermath of Saddam Hussien will take money and resources on a scale that only government can provide.

I'm a fan of Thomas Barnett (Pentagon's New Map) and his way of viewing America's military activities around the globe as being divided into "warfighting" and "sysadmin" work.  What techie doesn't understand that reference?  Warfighting is the big guns for big opponents kind of operation that the US military excels at.  Sysadmin work is the processes, people, and resources that take a politically bankrupt regime from "destroyed" to "integrated and functioning."  It includes everything from military police to prison guards to language translators to construction crews.

Wait!  Aren't those the very things on the list of things we need to recover from diasters like Katrina?  Yeah.  As I've listened to the reports out of Louisiana and Mississippi, I've been thinking over and over: "that's part of the Sysadmin Force." Who's fixing the levees?  Army Corp of Engineers.  Who's providing humanitarian relief?  The Red Cross and ahost of others.  The list of government agencies and NGOs (non-governmental agencies) reads like a Who's Who for the Sysadmin force. 

The administration is taking much of the blame and that's fair to some extent.  If you're in charge, you get the responsibility.  The new Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) was supposed to fix all of this, but frankly, no single move, no matter how grandiose will be the solution.  I've heard reports of some NGOs beginning their relief efforts (i.e., trucks were rolling) before the storm even hit.  I haven't heard similar reports about government relief efforts. 

Part of the problem is that people (and I include myself) tend to view our foriegn policy exercises and our response to natural disasters as very different kinds of actions, but when looked at through the lens of the Sysadmin fource, that's no longer true. The job in Iraq, Afganistan, and Louisiana are, to a large extent, the same and the failures in one area are a reflection of the failures in the other.  The problem isn't resources.  We seem to have the right pieces, but we can't coordinate them.

Coordination comes down to governance.  Local governments usually get gold stars here.  The feds have a harder time with it.  Their strong suit is dropping in with boatloads of resources a few days after things hit.  That's why diasaster recovery has usually come down to local management with Federal resources.  Katrina seems to have set different expectations because its scope was so large and wiped out many of the resources that local responders rely on.  9/11 was an aberation because it took place in city with lots of local resources and strong governance (personified in Giuliani).  Disasters of a similar scope that take place outside a few select cities will quickly overwhelm local resources and goverance capabilities.  

Yesterday Doc Searls wrote about a comment I made to him a few years back:

Phil Windley made a useful distinction between the politics of elections and the politics of governance. The latter, he told me, was what mattered most. In governance, he said, the distinctions between parties are, while important, also irrelevant to the most basic concerns of citizens, which are about making sure the water runs and the roads get fixed.

Doc makes the point that the Internet means that we are no longer as dependent on government as we once were to provide relief and create virtual organizations.  Doc has started to catalog some of the network-centric, non-governmental responses to Katrina and the list is impressive. 

I'm a big fan of ybridized eGovernment services built from government and non-government resources, but I'm afraid they will always be better at responding to events than they are at planning and forward thinking.  Frankly, we loose interest too soon to have grassroots preparation for disasters.  Heck, I have a tough time getting my family's 72-hour kits made and up-to-date. What's more, the planning and preparation necessary to create a Sysadmin force that can respond to disasters like Katrina or the aftermath of Saddam Hussien will take money and resources on a scale that only government can provide.  Katrina has shown us that this is a different game than just hoping FEMA can manage some flood insurance in a few weeks. 


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