Decency's Rewards

March 2018
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

Just about every restaurant restroom in America has a sign reminding employees to wash their hands. I’ll bet a higher-than-average percentage of people using the facilities at the Sweetwater Music Hall and restaurant in Mill Valley, Calif., actually do so. That’s because Sweetwater’s signs read, “California state law and common decency require that you wash your hands.” That latter appeal is a powerful concept, at least as strong as an invocation of legal requirements, and I think it can be used to do more than just limit the spread of disease by getting people to use better hygiene.

It seems to me, for example, that common decency -- the idea that certain behavior is just the right thing to do -- is the force underlying the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), the remarkably successful system of mutual aid described in Daniel C. Vock’s feature this month that enables states to reach out to each other for resources to respond to disasters.

I see three elements of EMAC that seem to make it work so well. First, it is a learning network. After-action reports, through which governments can share experiences and learn from one another, are done following every disaster response. Second, continuity is assured because EMAC has a small ongoing staff. And finally, as Vock writes, “Perhaps one of the most remarkable achievements of EMAC so far is that the public often expects that local first responders will pitch in to help with far-off disasters. And politicians have noticed.”

It’s worth considering whether elected leadership and other policymakers can learn from EMAC about how to better manage other shared problems. Often what is needed today are networks of governments acting collectively. Problems like homelessness, the lack of affordable housing and the opioid crisis are too big for individual state and local governments. Something like common decency is the basis of the trust that allows networks of governments to work.

Right after last summer’s Hurricane Irma, a guy in Florida tweeted a video of a Los Angeles Fire Department truck towing rescue boats down the Florida turnpike. “Choked me up!” he wrote, and in the video he can be heard saying, “This is so freaking cool!” What he was describing was undoubtedly EMAC in action, and his tweet was liked more than 42,000 times. He and his Twitter followers were uplifted by a powerful and vivid image of government showing common decency. Let’s figure out how to do more of that.