President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
As you know all too well, we live in a world where crises are unpredictable and unavoidable. Whether it is a catastrophic oil spill, an overwhelming weather event, a terrorist attack, or a major outbreak of food-borne illness, we rely on our government to help us cope.
The Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy recently convened a diverse group of experts working on openness and transparency, as well as public health and crisis information management.
Together, we’ve put together a list of core values that we hope will guide your administration in the future. Our goal is to ensure that the public has the information they need to protect themselves and their families as rapidly and comprehensively as possible. We hope that we can work with you to adopt the following core recommendations:
1) Elevate the Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator to special assistant to the President to highlight FEMA’s crucial role in managing crises.
2) Give the FEMA Administrator the power to release confidential business information to the public when the public health and safety requires such an exemption.
3) Issue an executive order requiring executive agencies to come up with structures and methods of communicating information about crises that span all federal agencies, and that identify the appropriate crisis information managers at the state and local level.
4) Create an interagency federal advisory panel including experts from outside the government, particularly from non-profits such as the Red Cross, to both help structure a sound and effective crisis information management plan, and evaluate how well the government performed and what could be improved after major crises occur.
5) Ask your Chief Technology Officer to work with agencies to develop systems for using social media to inform the public about developing crises.
6) Institute a crisis matrix that establishes priorities for the dissemination of information. The highest priority should be giving the public plain-language information about how to prepare for and react to a crisis.
7) Find ways to communicate risk in ways that resonate. A good example is the weather service’s designation of storms and hurricanes.
8) Disclose information about the health and public safety impacts of a crisis as you receive it, making clear that the facts may change as the science becomes more conclusive.
9) Invite scientists outside government to help with risk assessments and publicly disclose and make available for public comment as much of this information as possible.
10) Take steps to respond in a timely manner to media requests for information and interviews and make every effort to grant the media access to experts and government officials with the greatest firsthand knowledge or expertise about the crisis.
We will be developing more detailed information and recommendations to share with your staff in the months ahead. We look forward to working with you on this important issue.
Prudence S. Adler
Associate Executive Director
Association of Research Libraries
Professor and Graduate Program Director
UMBC Department of Emergency Health Services
Baltimore, MD 21250
Caroline Smith DeWaal
Food Safety Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Director of Public Policy
Project On Government Oversight
Mark R. Caramanica
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Center for Science and Democracy
Union of Concerned Scientists