Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 20, 2010

Templates, uncertainty, imagination, thinking and doing homeland security

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 20, 2010

This blog is brought to you courtesy of a template.  Without a template the time and effort needed to program the presentation would be, at least for me, considerably more than the time and effort involved in writing the blog’s contents.

Yesterday Mark Chubb mentioned the remarkable convergence and effectiveness of fire safety codes.  A big part of the success has been the promotion of  “model codes” by the International Code Council,  National Fire Protection Association, and others.   These models have served as templates for hundreds of jurisdictions.  Whatever the template, many jurisdictions add their own unique elements.  But the existence of models has been crucial to widespread adoption.

A few months ago I was part of a government-to-government process that submitted a seven page concept of operations for an innovative approach to an aspect of homeland security.  We struggled and argued over each sentence, trying to communicate clearly, concisely, but also completely.  Three weeks after sending off the seven pages a request/instruction came back to reduce it to one paragraph.  We sent back the first two paragraphs of the seven pages as a single block.  Three weeks later approval was received to proceed.  No questions, no comments, nothing more than a single sentence stating a “revised approach” was approved. 

Perhaps I should simply give thanks for approval.  But I wonder if there is a shared understanding of what was approved.

More recently I filled in a Program Management Plan template for a multi-million dollar homeland security project.  The template was organized as a series of entirely reasonably questions for which very little space was allocated for answers.  Mostly the PMP was organized around what would be delivered, when it would be delivered, and how much it would cost. The PMP was less a program management plan and much more a financial accounting tool.  Such tools are important and helpful.  But a financial accounting tool should not be confused with a “program – management — plan.”

Monday this blog gave attention to the regional Oil Spill Recovery Plan (OSRP) that British Petroleum filed for its operations in the Gulf of Mexico.  It was clearly the output of a templated process.  I bet several answers for the Gulf of Mexico could be duplicated for the Persian Gulf or any other gulf.

Many years ago I was wandering the crowded hallways of the brand spanking new Department of Homeland Security when a template for State disaster planning was being developed.  During its first year DHS had received an amazing collection of good, bad, and ugly plans, each as unique as the state (and particular agency) developing the plan.

Over the years as the DHS template was refined the plans became increasingly similar.  There were fewer and fewer horrifically bad plans.  But the best plans also disappeared (at least in my judgment).  Further, the ability to use any “plan” as a way to see inside the head of the planner was essentially eliminated.   Many of the best plans had been explicit regarding what was unknown, ambiguous, and the cause of uncertainty.  The template discouraged this sort of thinking.

Where there had once been narrative, analysis, and argument (good and bad) the templates generated  largely  antiseptic and mostly well-organized information. My preferred definitions: information is organized data, knowledge is information placed in context, wisdom is knowledge applied effectively to solve a problem or seize an opportunity.

In the non-templated plans there had been occasional  outbursts of imagination.  In a few worrisome cases these edged toward the fantastically delusional. But in any case you could see a human brain struggling with a set of problems.  The template successfully smoothed these rough edges.

The template I am using to generate this blog has its limitations, but it is tolerant — even encouraging — of multiple points-of-view,  various ways of expressing points-of-view, and access and presentation of a depth of data, information, and knowledge.  When a template does not allow for this diversity and depth and range it threatens to undermine the potential for wisdom.

Templates should assist, not try to replace thinking.

For further consideration:

Dynamics and Quantitative Studies of Human Behavior (Santa Fe Institute)

Critical Thinking: A Concise Guide by Tracy Bowell and Gary Kemp

Project Zero (Harvard University)

We have met the enemy and he is powerpoint (New York Times)

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5 Comments »

Comment by Art Botterell

May 20, 2010 @ 6:42 am

“Compliance documents,” we call them. They replace creative problem identification, problem solving and team building with mere administrative procedure. Which is much easier and less risky, and many practitioners are quietly grateful.

In Lee Clarke’s1999 book Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster he argues that plans for catastrophic events are (quoting from the University of Chicago Press website) “fundamentally rhetorical: the plans have no chance to succeed, yet they serve both the organizations and the public as symbols of control, order, and stability… Clarke concludes that society would be safer, smarter, and fairer if organizations could admit their limitations.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 20, 2010 @ 9:12 am

Well templates have their problems. There was a template all the way back in the Federal Civil Defense Program for the STATES, then called CPG-101, evolving to SLG-101 (with attachment G for terroris in 2000-note pre-9/11) and now of course back to CPG-101 identifier. Several years ago in a very very expensive contract, the contractor reviewed state plans under SLG 101 (without Annex G) and still flunked over 50% of the states. Well the STATEs because of their reliance on property taxes have become the weak sisters in the Federal system. Can they be relied on? We saw in Katrina maybe not! There has been up to a 25% reduction in EM and HS capability because of the recession. Does anyone care? My suggestion is a permanent 24% pickup for the 500 largest metropolitian areas for public safety including, HS, EM, EMT, Public Health, Fire and Police. These top 500 are in fact NATIONAL Assets and should not be allowed to deteriorate in any future that can be anticipated. There is NO way the feds could recreate this local capability.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 21, 2010 @ 4:43 am

Mr. Botterell, thank you. I was not aware of the Clarke text. I have ordered it. If it is as good as the publisher’s blurb, I will order a box full and begin distributing free to colleagues.

Recently I was in conversation with some long-time, very smart, and professionally committed emergency planners. They have been assigned to a regional catastrophic planning process. During the conversation one of them remarked, “We have to stop talking about this as a plan. You can’t plan a catastrophe.”

The group seemed to quickly agree that the more potentially catastrophic an event, the less suited it is for detailed tactical plans. The group never came up with a consensus term to replace “plan.” Some of the options were “strategy” or “framework” or not trying to go beyond a Concept of Operations.

The shared, if inarticulate, understanding was that our intellectual and operational preparations for catastrophe must not obscure our limitations.

I agree with Clarke’s point that this small group’s readiness to embrace the reality of their limitations is unusual… it was also empowering to their preparations.

Which to Bill Cumming’s point I will add, there is a need for much more self-examination and self-criticism at every level of governance (beginning with the individual citizen) regarding the limitations of each and, as a result, the need for effective collaboration by all.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 22, 2010 @ 9:27 am

Plans almost never reveal their “Planning Basis” meaning what they actually are designed to do or how they will be scaled up for larger events. But the planning process can fill some large gaps and at least avoid the classic failure represented by those who are handing out their business cards in a real world event. Trust in the competence and knowledge basis of those running the crisis response is crucial to having a hope to succeed.

What bothers me is that since WWII the WH has tried to convince many of its infallibilty in handling many crisis that in fact it cannot handle. Are Americans so childish as to think that the President can save them from all their disasters, personal, local, widespread or even of national or international scope? Apparently yes that is the thought process and so President’s falling short will suffer the fallout from that failure.

Mobilization elements and logistics often ignored in many plans.

Comment by John Glenn, MBCI

May 23, 2010 @ 7:02 am

Too many Risk management/Business Continuity templates, especially those software-generated, are little more than “check the box” while trying to stuff square pegs into round holes. (OK – no more clichés.) No two organizations are the same (or units within an organization) – risk management, from identification and avoidance/mitigation to recovery can use a checklist providing the people using it understand it only is a checklist. Practitioners must, with Subject Matter Expert input, think beyond the checklist. Planning to avoid/mitigate threats very much requires human inquisitiveness and responses need to be entered into “rubber banded” boxes (i.e., boxes that expand to accommodate the content).

BTW, Mr Cumming, what is “WH?” White House? You wrote that “since WWII the WH has tried to convince many of its infallibility” then you wrote “Are Americans so childish as to think that the President can save them from all their disasters…?” Either the pols should change their tune (preferred), they should step up to the plate and meet their commitment to the people, or the people should consider all government talk just so much “hot air.”

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