Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 2, 2009

The Long Blog: Practical policy continued

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 2, 2009

Editorial Note:  This is the seventh in a series of posts on resilience as a proposed focus for a homeland security strategy.  This strategizing is organized around the approach taken by George Kennan in a seminal 1946 document.  Links to prior posts are provided below.


A bit more than a year after sending the Long Telegram, George Kennan reworked his analysis of Soviet neuroses and published “Sources of Soviet Conduct as an unsigned piece in Foreign Affairs magazine.  This revised and expanded text included a top contender for the most important single sentence of any strategy document of the Cold War.

In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.

I have been trying to argue that in our current circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the risks we face must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant extension of the boundaries within which we can achieve equilibrium.  If this sounds odd, listen again to Brian Walker’s 7 minute explanation of resilience.  

This strategy is fully cognizant of our limitations, which I have suggested can best be approached by embracing the tragic.  This is also a strategy that recognizes the potential of complex adaptive systems to preserve core identity in the midst of profound flux.

While depending on your mastery of last week’s literary analysis and the insights drawn from the study of the commons and complexity, I will take the risk of translating these arcane analogies into a direct — if very wonkish — statement of homeland security strategy. You should hear echoes  from the last six posts.


(With an Operational Example)

The United States faces a range of natural, accidental, and intentional threats that cannot always be accurately predicted, as a result these threats cannot always be prevented.

Accordingly, the homeland security strategy of the United States seeks to maximize individual, local, regional, and national capacity to:

1. Absorb or buffer disaster while preserving and, if possible, advancing physical, psychological, social, economic, and constitutional integrity.

2. Effectively observe and adapt to change while preserving or advancing physical, psychological, social, economic and constitutional integrity.

3. Learn and increase capacity to adapt to changes experienced at the local, regional, and national level and across social and economic sectors.

The Secretary of Homeland Security, in cooperation with the President and other departments and agencies, shall undertake to:

Support and facilitate community-based Risk and Resilience Assessments. These Risk and Resilience Assessments shall be undertaken on a voluntary basis.  The Department of Homeland Security shall provide conferences, training, and expert facilitators to assist in completion of the Risk and Resilience Assessments.  Completed Risk and Resilience Assessments shall qualify to compete for up to $1 billion in federal grants.

Every level of government, major agencies of government,  private sector organizations, and neighborhoods shall be encouraged to undertake Risk and Resilience Assessments .  The Department of Homeland Security shall contract with well-established voluntary, not-for-profit organizations to serve as legal liaison and grant administrators for informal organizations or other parties (e.g. a neighborhood) wishing to participate in the Risk and Resilience Assessment process but not having status to receive federal funding.

The Risk and Resilience Assessment process shall include local, regional, statewide, multi-state, and national workshops, conferences, and related digital resources to encourage participation, collaboration, deliberation, and interaction among those undertaking Risk and Resilience Assessments.

The Citizen Corps program of the Department of Homeland Security shall be funded and organized to provide facilitation and expertise in the Risk and Resilience Assessment process.

The Risk and Resilience Assessment process, as outlined above, shall be monitored by a team of expert observers/evaluators who will rapidly share lessons-learned.  A web-based, peer-to-peer network will also serve as a dynamic and growing knowledge base for the Risk and Resilience Assessment Process.

The Department of Homeland Security, the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School, and the National Academy of Sciences  shall cooperate in establishing the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for Risk and Resilience to develop, conduct and encourage others to develop and conduct professional development, educational, and other learning programs related to Risk and Resilience.

All parties completing Risk and Resilience Assessments shall be eligible to compete for a total pool of $1 billion per year in federal grants to address the findings of the Risk and Resilience Assessments.  Every three months $250 million shall be awarded in the following tranches:

  • Up to five grants of $5 million each,
  • Up to 25 grants of  $1 million each,
  • Up to 50 grants of $500,000 each,
  • Up to 100 grants of $250,000 each,
  • Up to 200 grants of $125,000 each,
  • Up to 1000 grants of $40,000 each,
  • Up to 2000 grants of $20,000 each, and
  • Up to 4500 grants of $10,000 each.

Recipients shall be chosen by majority vote of 500 electors drawn from nominations submitted by the Governors of the States and territories of the United States and apportioned by population.  After one year of service, 125 electors shall retire every three months and be replaced by a new class.  (So that, of the inaugural class, 125 shall serve one year and nine months.)  In this manner, beginning in the second year of operations, the electoral body will receive new members each quarter.


I never voted for Ted Kennedy.  For most of my youth he represented the ultimate personification of the “other side.”  But I cannot think of anyone who better personifies resilience.

The foregoing program is mostly offered to demonstrate how the strategic principles drawn out in prior posts might be reasonably implemented.  There are practical ways to encourage broadbased participation, collaboration and deliberation. It is possible, even for a large bureaucracy, to offer facilitative leadership and eschew authoritarian tendencies.  It is possible to encourage local creativity and accountability.  It might even be possible to encourage  communities and the system to embrace tragic potential. 

I hope you can see how these common attributes of  resilient systems can be applied to a wide range of programming across the Department of Homeland Security’s mission beyond this example.

I don’t expect the Department of Homeland Security, much less the entire homeland security establishment, to suddenly adopt a strategy of resilience.  But the foregoing strikes me as a doable, potentially powerful means of seeding resilience thinking and behavior.  It would probably cost $1.3 billion per year.  But please give more attention to how the attributes of resilience are being seeded.

The seeds of the first season should multiply in subsequent seasons. With care — and some fortuitous emergence — we might even be creating a new commons, a widely shared resource for enhanced understanding of risk and resilience.


Previous posts in this series:

The Long Blog:  A strategy of resilience (October 19)

The Long Blog: “Basic features” of US risk and resilience (October 21)

The Long Blog: Four preliminary deductions from seven premises (October 23)

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, the role of neurosis (October 26)

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, embracing the tragic to avoid the ironic (October 28)

The Long Blog: Its (our risk analysis) projection in practical policy on official level (October 30)

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 2, 2009 @ 5:19 am


There are sooo many. But in this case, I perceive that several of the principal weaknesses in the argument and the example could contribute to making my next argument in this series, so I don’t want to skew the results and will wait to see your critiques, questions, and more.

FYI… depending on your challenges, critiques, and such, I think we might finish this serialized strategizing ahead of schedule, even by this Friday.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

November 2, 2009 @ 7:15 am

The objectives are admirable, but your plan for implementation needs work in my view. I do not agree with your choices for lead organizations for the implementation.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 2, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

Phil! Absolutely correct that the key sentence ever written by Kennan is as stated below:
“In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”

Kennan was perceptive enough to know that long-term thinking, patience and firmness and vigilance was almost the last thing that governmental policy process and apparatus was designed to do. First, changes in Commander-In-Chief and Chief Executive. This is a fundamental strength but because so little official business is conducted transparently or openly little is known of the real policy process of government. I found my strength as a bureacrat, but also a weakness in the sense that gave others a basis for character, policy and other attacks on me or my positions, was that I was always ready to discuss, record, recommend openly, on the record no matter what. There is a tendency for bureacracy and the ever present appointees to be innately conservative about stating a position because the WASHINGTON scene for years has been about taking sides on issues and no longer seeking correct policies. Opponents can wait for someone to adopt a position and then their path is clear–oppose that policy no matter what its merits. Perhaps it has been always so and of course history records those who ended up on top or with staying power as to choices. There was a joke when I was on active duty–It follows: Those who made flag rank knew which orders to obey and which to disobey! Those who did not make flag rank but might have usually did not correctly surmise which orders to disobey! It made me realize how even in the military accountability, much less use of authority could be ducked.
Why this discussion of Kennan is so important is because I personally believe he hit the nail on the head. What now occurs is that few, like the President obviously is trying to do in AF-PAK, is take the time to decide the policy before discussion of issues. This long blog seems to me an excellent choice to looking at long term policy and the choice of resilience I think is the key to domestic Homeland Security and like your first draft (knowing you there were more) of a formal statement of policy. Speaking of that the HSPDs are remarkable for how they confuse policy, issues, mandates, delegations and certainly lack a clarity that time might have revealed even more. Hoping they are systematically review and perhaps reissued or revoked. Most don’t want to make the huge intellectual effort to properly decide policy and the flow therefrom. The problem of course is that often policy is decided at a very low level and then rather than categorized and systematically review, just allowed to let stand or reversed with no rationale. Example, leaving FEMA in DHS and failing to identify clearly a domestic crisis management system and chain of command. Revelation–It does look like the STAFFORD ACT may be looked at early next spring for a variety of reasons–but it is clearly obvious now that it is NOT the domestic crisis management or chain of command statutory framework and the incapacity of the public works committees that have principal oversight will never see it but as a form of justified long-term pork witness billions going into NOLA that will not be resilient in the next CAT 3 storm much less a CAT 5. Perhaps more later.
P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 2, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

I have no particular brief for the specific organizations, just trying to exemplify how a particular approach to implementing the strategy might be organized.

How would you — or with which organizations — move to implementation?

There is, I perceive, a DC tendency — even a very American tendency — to engage in ready, fire, aim. I think Bill Cumming and I are both encouraging a bit more ready, aim, fire.

In the private sector the tendency to experiment before setting explicit objectives can encourage creativity. It also explains the significant failure rate.

In the public sector the lack of clear policy/strategy aims can result in an “activity trap” that can too often and for too long be justified despite questionable outcomes.

So… yes, I am trying to suggest the why and what of a long-term policy and strategy. If we can agree on the whats and whys, I expect there are many different hows and ways to achieve it.

Comment by Mark Chubb

November 2, 2009 @ 10:18 pm

Phil, it’s taken me a little while to figure out why I am not fully on board with the risk and resilience assessments as a way forward. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, risk presents certain obstacles when trying to engage the public, and is not much more successful as a way of engaging public officials.

At a recent conference, Patricia Levy, a colleague from Fort Hays State University in Kansas, gave a fascinating presentation on critical incident analysis from the perspective of the social work discipline. She grounded her approach in the strengths-based clinical practices promoted by Dennis Saleebey and work on coherence by Aaron Antonovsky.

This work comports well with many of my previous comments on the importance of moral coherence to the success of resilience as a strategic approach (much less an improvement upon our current approach) to homeland security.

In short, the strengths-based approach aligns with the appreciative inquiry model of organizational development (see Cooperrider and colleagues). As such, it asks not “what’s wrong with the status quo,” but rather, “how can we use our resources better to achieve what we want.” (Of course, it also requires us to consider what we want, and, perhaps more importantly, why.)

Successfully engaging a strength-based approach requires people to accept their deficits, tragic or otherwise, and work with what they have to get what they want. In doing so, it requires them to take stock of what they’ve learned from past experiences both good and bad.

Organizing this stuff into something that makes sense of the world in which we live requires us to develop a coherent view of the world in which we live and our place in it. (I hope, as noted in previous comments, that this view accepts culpability for our past mistakes, embraces humility, and seeks to reduce our vulnerabilities by building upon our diversity.)

We should be careful in taking such an approach to avoid focusing on the deficits of our adversaries (their neuroses) anymore than we would focus on our own. (A preoccupation with either assumes we are victims of circumstance with little or no control over our situation.) We cannot and should not assume that our adversaries will continue to act in ways that are grounded in grievance and pathology.

While I suggest that we should not assume we lack control over our environment, I accept your premise that we cannot afford to assume either that the future is ours to mold as we will it. A middle ground exists in which we manage our expectations of ourselves and those of others of who look to us for leadership.

I would like to explore this further, but need to chew on some of these ideas a bit more. In the meantime, thanks for producing such a thought-provoking series. Here’s hoping it stimulates some critical reflection in the corridors of power and policy-making.

Comment by Mark Chubb

November 2, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

My efforts to edit my comment online failed me once again.

The sixth paragraph of my previous reads a little more tautologically than I had intended: “Organizing this stuff into something that makes sense of the world in which we live requires us to develop a coherent view of the world in which we live and our place in it.”

Let’s try it again: Organizing this stuff into something that makes sense of the world in which we live, our place in it, and the way we should respond to it calls for moral coherence.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 3, 2009 @ 4:14 am

There has been an interesting off-line exchange on my prior prescription for embracing the tragic. (October 28 post) Mark Chubb’s comment here might bring that discussion into the open.

Mark has not been part of the off-line exchange and he was the one commentator who seemed most open to my embrace of the tragic.

But above Mark expresses a realistic concern as my focus on tragic potential is operationalized through the Risk and Resilience Assessments. (This is a benefit of any effort to operationalize the purely strategic, it begins to make more concrete what the strategy means.)

I am sympathetic to the strength-based approach that Mark outlines. This would certainly make the whole effort more readily acceptable. I, too, was raised to accentuate the positive.

But when and where I was raised, the positive was perceived as a point of light in a tragic landscape. A farmer knows there is much he can do — must do — to plow, plant, cultivate, and harvest. But there is nothing much he can do to control drought, wind, hail and more.

The coal-miner knows there is much he can do to enhance his safety. But sometimes the mountain collapses.

Unlike the farmers, coal-miners, and other neighbors of my youth, there is much about our modern context that obscures the persistence of tragic potential. In dozens — even hundreds — of ways we are much more in control of our lives today than we were a half-century ago, not to speak of three centuries ago.

Yet in many essential ways we have no more control than a 17th Century farmer.

Modernity chaffs at this lack of control. We have spent three very productive centuries seeking to transfer Newtonian insights from our physics to our politics and economics. We are comforted by action-with-predictable-reaction.

But it can be a false, delusional comfort. Newton has not been succeeded, but he has been complemented by Heinsenberg, Schrodinger, Einstein, et al.

I worry that leading with only a strength-based approach reinforces our delusion and will undermine our outcomes. Sometimes there is no avoiding the hard way.


“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

From the Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 3, 2009 @ 5:10 am

WOW! The Velveteen Rabbit! It has always interested me how some parents breed and raise children that are resilient and how many continue to encourage dependency. Perhaps an analytical framework could be be shorthanded to distinguishing policies that promote resilience as opposed to those that promote dependence? Maybe Phil is right in that both resilience of America and Americans is at stake in the arena of resiliency? And was “Peter Rabbit” really risk analysis in disguise? From another Peter Pan who really did NOT want to grow up!

Comment by christopher tingus

November 3, 2009 @ 7:55 am

Terrific post and such thoughtful views –

Wow! The Velveteen Rabbit – I bet there are few insightful blogs like this the White House is reading as it makes attempt to impose itself in every domestic and AfPak nook and cranny without the necessary perception of the respective participants in play and how their steadfast policymaking and employed strategies affect the global landscape which we have less and less credibility to offer….

Unfortunately it is the present beltway beaucracy and its inability to be resilient in the apparent partisanship we watch on C-span and – Fox News – and CNN as well which has resulted in rigor mortis with no breath of creativity. It is this present void in leadership which assures us of a continued course of impoverishment and third world status as the top tier continue to play basketball and polo, take scenic flights over NYC watching droves of people running for their lives and keeping tabs on a President on a date, a couple who agreed to spend four years to help the country as well as a first lady helping obese kids become healthy!

We, our beloved Republic are at peril and as a – bankrupt nation – an unfathomable growing deficit induced by corrupted self-agenda and the ongoing greed of corporations and their industry lobbyists, your discussions and good intentions herein are at times inspring, but too few with such resilience as well as prerequisite attentive listening skills, with so many depicting the contrary –

The numerous substantive issues affecting us require strict discipline and willingness to clasp hands and lead this nation from the velcro decision making along party lines – from what most of us on Main Stret USA see, hear and feel in our empty wallets – conclusion – we’ ve lost!

It has been so written for we have become a nation unwilling to repent, unwilling to be respective of our forefather’s insightful Constitution or the Judeo-Christian values which created this great nation pervaded with entrepreneurial and resilience which
thwarted foe from afar, but now it is those within that we truly mistrust, obviously with little acumen at the helm or ability to alter the compass needle presently pointing to the smug smile of Pelosi which depicts it all!

God Bless us all!

It is not the children and Grandchildren we worry about now, it is the near term, it is you that have bailed out Paulson et al and print “fiat” dollars at your whim placing the value of the dollar at risk and our livlihood, while enslaving our families to an ever growing government presence seeking to impose its agenda as a “know it all” – Barney Frank – mentality affording us little recognition for it our resilience, our creativity, our daily toil and certainly those before us who have created the American dream and poised America as the beacon of hope to so, so many….for generations!

We encourage views to be shared and such interesting discussion as herein, however the clock is ticking and unless Congress and the John Kerry types can get past their arrogant ways, the ongoing power shift to the European continent so well orchestrated by the Germans leading the EU creating an organization of states beholden and the Vatican supporting every concurrence in strategy will once again bring much disharmony and war, a great suffering to millions, millions of souls….

We “entrusted” you as public servants.

Whether at the local level, from the elected school committee person to the executive branch, no matter your party, no matter your personal preference, you have been negligent in your pledge in oath and commitment to the principles of this great nation and its most charitable people, a compassionate people willing to reach to the shores and lands far yonder and reluctantly, yet willingly sacrifice its most precious, its very own youth to thwart the evil doers who seek to undermine the goodness of mankind.

You are such a disappointment – though is it, fot is is written that very manmade government no matter form, has failed from Babylon to present and you have only once again substantiated the reasons for man’s lack of ability, no matter the scholarly attempts, in creating an environment which our Creator wished for individual and all humanity and today must weep at the disregard for another’s dignity, Rights and Responsibilities within the community….

Christopher Tingus
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

Comment by Mark Chubb

November 3, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

I’m not sure taking stock of strengths necessarily means accentuating the positive. It sounds like I was raised not too far geographically or culturally from where you were, Phil.

My hometown was a crossroads, where farming, industry, the military, and suburbia intersected. As a child of the Cold War who lived on the doorstep of one of the chief strategic targets of the Soviet Union, I was not raised with a particularly positive view of the future. Apprehension and anxiety were more the norm.

That said, like most of us I did not know any better, so I can’t really call my childhood unhappy anymore than I would consider it unproductive. It has made me who I am though, and that has a lot to do with my predisposition toward taking stock of what we have and where we are today.

For me, the strengths-based perspective to which I referred in my earlier comment is not so much about trying to put a happy face on adversity as it is an effort to understand what we can make of what we have left ourselves with. This can be a very sobering experience for some if not most of us.

By casting the quest for meaning in qualitative (vulnerability and capital) as opposed to quantitative (risk and consequence) terms, it seeks to ask and answer very subjective questions in more or less objective ways. This means taking an approach that involves both epistemic and ontological streams.

Flora and Flora have taken such an approach to rural development by organizing their examination of what makes rural communities work (what makes them resilient) according to various forms of capital: material and social. Social capital involves more than networks, and asks how culture, politics, and individual human capabilities and potential combine to make a community successful (or not). Material capital includes a community’s economic and natural endowments. One of the insights gained from this approach is the importance of cultural values to resilience and community success.

I remain convinced (largely as the result of direct personal experience) that embracing the tragic is a key element of a resilience strategy. The little town I grew up in was devastated by a massive tornado when I was a youngster. FEMA did not yet exist. The state mobilized National Guard troops and imposed a curfew and martial law. Our neighbors offered what help they could despite having suffered many of the same effects from the storm system themselves. When the dead were buried and the debris cleared, we were left to figure out for ourselves most of the tough parts associated with response and recovery.

We clearly made mistakes in the rebuilding process. Another smaller tornado a few years later followed much the same path and caused a bit less damage and fewer deaths. It proved we still had a lot to learn.

About that time, someone noted that the Shawnee people who had settled in the area before Europeans arrived had referred to it as the “place of the devil winds,” and, as such, had decided to build their permanent settlement a bit farther up river. Had we noted and respected the cultural knowledge of those who came before us, we might have avoided some of our mistakes.

Learning from the past, indeed resilience as a whole, is not about avoiding losses or minimizing consequences though. (And it is certainly not about asking what could have been or why things didn’t turn out differently.) It is about how we appreciate the often tragic circumstances we encounter and what determining how that experience informs both our response and the path we take toward recovery.

We can (and often do) choose to repeat some if not all of our past mistakes. But when we do, we should be prepared to accept the consequences of our actions. This does not require fatalistic acceptance of fate anymore than it would preclude action to remedy or avoid similar fates in the future.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 3, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

If I read Mark Chubb correctly, he is saying it is his experience that by embracing the tragic we cultivate an attitude that is predisposed to positive action. Recognizing the tragic, we can choose to emphasize our strengths. If I have read correctly, then I agree with him. That sequence is, I perceive, important and empowering to individuals, organizations, and communities.

Mark also writes,”By casting the quest for meaning in qualitative (vulnerability and capital) as opposed to quantitative (risk and consequence) terms, it seeks to ask and answer very subjective questions in more or less objective ways.” This is a distinction between qualitative and quantitative that I need to better understand. But I am intriqued.

Comment by Mark Chubb

November 3, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

Thanks for taking the bait, Phil. To put the quote you seized upon in context, there was an additional sentence that’s fundamental to my approach: Here’s the full paragraph again:

“By casting the quest for meaning in qualitative (vulnerability and capital) as opposed to quantitative (risk and consequence) terms, it seeks to ask and answer very subjective questions in more or less objective ways. This means taking an approach that involves both epistemic and ontological streams.”

Epistemology seeks to answer questions about the origin of knowledge. Ontology, as a branch of metaphysics, seeks to establish what constitutes reality and perhaps more important to us for this exercise, how we appreciate it.

Most of us are inclined to make little distinction between what we know and what exists, and vice versa. But the failure to make such distinctions presents us with some very important and difficult problems when it comes to operationalizing resilience.

When we look at something like critical infrastructure, say a water distribution system, we cannot easily separate our knowledge of what it is and the purpose it serves from its existence and the reality of its operation and maintenance. But that does not mean we understand these things as an integrated whole. Nevertheless, how we understand them and more importantly how we compartmentize this understanding affects what we do, and to that extent determines whether or not something that functions as a source of physical capital becomes a vulnerability rather than an asset.

Risk analysis tends to ask us to consider issues from the position of epistemic uncertainty: “How will the water system perform under various hazard conditions or threats.” But the water system is not just a physical asset that consists of a network of pipes and valves connected to pumps and reservoirs. It is also the human knowledge, operations and maintenance budgets, tools and capital equipment, and organizational capacity required to make it function and to restore it to proper function when things go wrong. Unless our risk analysis looks at all of the contingent probabilities, which it rarely does, all we end up knowing is that the system has x probability of failing to successful convey water from its source to where it’s consumed and that a failure is more likely to occur in one place as opposed to another. It doesn’t necessarily give us a clear understanding of whether we possess the resources and knowledge to get the repairs made quickly, much less whether its worth doing this in light of the damage incurred by other systems.

In other words, the physical capital cannot exist or function independent of the other sources of capital in the community that make it work. All of these systems and their component resources are vulnerable, often in different ways to the same threats. And any one system can be either an asset or a liability under different circumstances.

Risk and consequence assessment asks us how likely it is that something will go wrong, and how bad that will look. It does not answer the more important question, “How will it affect us and what can we (or should we) do to make it right.”

Resilience is about making it right. We cannot assess resilience without taking stock of the various forms of capital available to a community. These include things that can be very difficult to quantify, but nonetheless represent very tangible and indeed critical sources of value.

Brian Walker drew upon an ecological analogy to explain his conception of resilience. We cannot properly apply that analogy though without incorporating the living and breathing elements of at-risk systems with the quantifiable physical elements of them that tend to occupy most if not all of our attention in the conventional approaches to risk management.

The self-organizing activity to which Brian Walker refers in his brief talk is the community’s response. Like the human being that suffers a catastrophic trauma, the community must decide whether to live or die. To the extent that it chooses life over death, it must accept that life in the future may be very different from life in the past.

Accepting a new life and a new relationship with the world around us is an important part of resilience. The extent to which any community can embrace such a momentous transition is a function both of the amplitude and direction of the assault it suffers, and, perhaps more importantly, the character and distribution of the endowments and resources available to it and how it understands, organizes, and employs these as sources of capital in times of stress and transition.

What I am advocating is an approach to assessments that focuses on both sides of the coin, the yin and the yang, if you will. Risk and consequence tends to focus only on the downside, and then only on the epistemic downside at that. Looking at the upside as well requires us to consider how we can employ the assets we have, even those that make us vulnerable, to our advantage. This requires us to question our assumptions about reality. And this, my friend, is why it is so imperative that we accept the tragic.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 4, 2009 @ 5:11 am

Let me try to engage the differences between your epistemic and ontological in my own words, and stand by for your correction and critique:

Risk is more than deficit. Meaningfully understood risk includes an assessment of both weakness and strength.

Assessing threat can fire the imagination to recognize deficit and weakness. Threat analysis may expose vulnerabilities we had neglected.

But we should not focus only on our threats. Given the nature of many threats, this is sometimes not possible and in many cases is problematic.

So… we ought give attention to vulnerabilities. Applying the formula Risk =(Threat*Vulnerability)*Consequences, we can seek to reduce the V variable to less than 1.0. We can in essence cultivate our strengths so that V divides T, rather than multiplies.

(Mark is on the West Coast, so I don’t expect an early reply from him. I don’t think that should restrain you.)

Comment by Mark Chubb

November 4, 2009 @ 11:25 am

Phil, I am in complete agreement that a proper application of risk assessment and risk management principles considers both the up and downsides. But in reality that rarely seems to happen.

Perhaps it’s because we as humans seem hardwired to pay more attention to potential losses than gains cf Kahneman and Tversky). After all, it was Jefferson himself who distinguished between life and liberty as rights and happiness as something to be pursued rather than guaranteed.

When we examine threats carefully, I agree that we can in your words “fire the imagination” and gain important insights we might otherwise overlook. But I am far more concerned that we tend to overlook the possible strengths we can bring to bear on the dilemmas we face when it comes to risks and vulnerabilities. Many of our best options linger under our noses for years barely acknowledged must less assessed for their undiscovered potential much less unintended side benefits.

The way I look at the risk equation you present, we must be careful not to double count. Risk and consequences are very hard (at least in my mind) to distinguish from one another. I see the situation more as a question of

Threat * Vulnerability = Consequences = Risk

There are clearly probabilistic elements to both threats and our vulnerabilities to them, at least insofar as some characteristics of our environment are highly variable. The equation you started with a few posts back

Threat * Consequence = Risk

remains the conventional approach to this problem. But it assumes that threats exploits our weaknesses when in fact some threats ignore certain weaknesses entirely. In other words, we often apply this equation as if threat was a dependent rather than independent variable. We know, however, that consequence is also a dependent variable. So what’s the independent variable? Is it missing entirely from our equation?

Using the same risk equation to represent the probabilities of intentional and unintentional (natural) events, in my view, is inherently flawed. We cannot escape the fact that people choose their vulnerabilities just as terrorists choose their targets.

If this is true, then so is the observation that I am emphasizing. Some of our vulnerabilities and strengths are the same. It’s how we look at them and how we use them that matters.

Back to Brian Walker’s analogy for a moment: Unlike our trauma damaged bodies, our communities do not self-organize without conscious effort on the part of individuals. That conscious effort does not, however, have to be intentional. Our communities are affected by our actions (and inactions) whether we choose to apply our efforts to changing them or not.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 4, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

This is an amazing string of comments and helpful, very helpful to me in understand the relationship of risk to consequences/damages perhaps? Thanks Mark and thanks Phil for helping me understand better the discussion!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 4, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

Mark, very helpful clarification. While you have already been plenty generous… and I should perhaps be able to discern without asking… here’s another effort to see how well or badly an existing frame works with your perspective:

On the rare occasion when a jurisdiction or organization is open to a “full spectrum risk analysis” (my terminology, certainly not yours), we usually spend the first day or so focused on what gives this place its identity? What do you love about this place? What would you most hate to lose regarding this place?

This line of inquiry almost always brings forward strengths, sometimes strengths the locals are surprised to hear themselves articulate. The inputs from this inquiry inform other elements of the risk analysis process. Without giving you a whole list of specific examples, does this sound like something similar to your proposal that we lead with strengths? Or where is this still missing the point?

I hope you perceive that I am, in principle, agreeing with you. But I am trying to operationalize the strategic insight to be sure I understand the strategic insight.

One slightly off-the-main-point comment: if I ever advocated threat*consequences=risk, it is one of the most insidious typos of my life. Such a way of thinking is misleading and perverse. If it is the “conventional” way of risk analysis you have seen, no wonder you are so skeptical of risk analysis.

I am perhaps being too short, but it has been a long day and I still have a long way before I get home.

Comment by Mark Chubb

November 4, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

Phil, your description of full spectrum risk analysis is just the sort of approach I am advocating. Too many risk analyses look at the data in isolation from the public interpretation (perception) of the risk. As a consequence, they often overlook both the community’s capacity to tolerate a given level of risk or their ability to respond to and recover from an event when the probability equals one.

I’m not suggesting that you have proposed the risk equation (T * C = R), but rather that this is a fairly conventional, but inherently problematic prescription. You are spot on in noting that this is the source of my skepticism and that it arises from past experience. That said, I am fully supportive of the sort of approach you described, as I think it gets at the sorts of issues that concern me the most.

Your approach reminds me of a lesson I learned from a very wise mentor early in my career as a fire protection engineer. He once told me he always sought a meeting with the CEO of a new client regardless who in the organization contracted his services. If he couldn’t get access to the CEO, he often wouldn’t take the client. When he met with the CEO, he opened the meeting by asking, “So, Ms. CEO, how big a fire can you afford?”

This question was nearly always met with a pregnant pause followed by the stammering response that the company didn’t want a fire at all. He was persistent though, and would tell whomever he was meeting, “Well that’s really beyond my control. I can help protect you when a fire occurs, but only if I know how much it matters to you.”

Sometimes he got lucky and they gave him a specific dollar figure and the basis for that assessment. It was more common, however, for him to get his clients to tell him how long they could afford to interrupt their normal operations without irreparably affecting their business. Once he knew this he could determine how big a fire it would take to produce such a consequence as well as determine the value of any intervention on their bottom line. This approach ensured he had a clear idea how much he could afford to have the client invest in mitigating the risks he observed.

Most of his colleagues (and mine in those days) took a much different approach. They simply asked themselves, not the client, what the building or fire code required. This told them what their peers believed was the minimum for an average situation, and protected them from claims that they failed to meet the ethical obligations assessed by their profession. Unfortunately, the same approach often meant they failed to meet the moral obligation to serve their client’s interest while satisfying the public interest. Likewise, it often produced push back from the client who wondered whether the compliance costs were worth the investment or just a dead weight loss.

My colleague never found that his clients had a risk tolerance that was so out of whack with the public’s expectations that the code ever came into play (either the fire code or the code of ethics). In other words, the way he tested his clients assured he always met both standards. As a consequence, he turned some clients away. But they were usually the ones that would have cost him money, if not reputation, in the long run anyway.

We may not be in a position to turn the client away as we have an duty to serve the community. But we can steer the community and its decision-makers in a direction that both demonstrates and builds value.

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