Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 26, 2010

Crossing cultures: public-private partnerships in homeland security

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 26, 2010

To achieve the goals of homeland security the public and private sectors need each other.  But there are serious challenges to effective collaboration.  The challenges begin with the fundamental stance-on-reality of each sector.

Creativity is the essence of business culture.  Depending on the enterprise, creativity may focus on invention, product innovation, exploration, distribution,  marketing, or a range of other possibilities.   Without creativity, no business can long survive. 

Given this focus on creating something new, business is risk-taking. Failure is understood as a natural outcome of taking risks.  Recognizing failure, learning from it, and moving on as quickly as possible is part-and-parcel of the creative process.  Managing the risk of failure is of concern to business, but the need-to-create is given consistent priority in the most successful firms.

While open to creativity, government is principally concerned with safety.  Stability and predictability are highly valued.  Instability and lack of predictability are perceived as threatening.  Failure is seen as the outcome of insufficient preparation, poor management, and/or deception.  The public sector is risk-averse.

British Petroleum and Transocean pioneered new approaches to deep water exploration and oil extraction.  They were reaping the benefits of their creative risk.  They are now paying the costs of failure (and trying to minimize the costs and move on as best they can).

Government officials reacting to the  failure of the Deepwater Horizon have been quick to perceive greed and deception.  Business people, even those with no relationship to the energy industry, have been inclined to perceive the unfortunate consequence of risk-taking. Government officials promise to ensure this “never happens again.”  Business people endeavor to  “never-say-never” about opportunity or risk.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander, has continued to speak of a partnership between British Petroleum and the federal government.  At the same time Interior Secretary Salazar has repeatedly claimed to have his manly Colorado cowboy boot on BP’s presumably plumy foreign neck.

Is this a good cop (Allen)/ bad cop (Salazar)  routine? Whether or not the Admiral’s approach is politically effective, it is more conducive to facilitating unity-of-effort in containing and stopping the oil spill.

Woodrow Wilson wrote, “there should be a science of administration which shall seek to straighten the paths of government, to make its business less unbusinesslike.”  The future president wrote this in 1887 during a time when American business was especially creative… and exploitative, polluting, expansive, and increasingly rational and empirical in its methods (cost accounting, for example, was emerging in its modern form).  

Early manifestations of “scientific management” captured Wilson’s admiration.  In the 1880s Frederick W. Taylor was already using time-motion studies and developing the insights published in his 1905 Principles of Scientific Management.  How might public administration become as effective as business management?  But then we might ask, effective at what?

Management (and administration?) consists mostly of  deciding how resources are applied to reduce risk and seize opportunities in order to achieve purpose.  Public purpose and private purpose are not the same and their views of risk are often at odds.   Can we exploit the tension in a productive way?

Some call for the government to do more in regard to the disaster in the Gulf. But it is not clear what more the government can do.  In this case the government is largely dependent on the expert capabilities and capacity of BP and its industry partners.   The Washington Post quotes one energy expert as saying, “Uncle Sam has almost no institutional ability to control the oil spill. For that, you need people with technical authority, technical skill and firms with industrial capabilities.”

The greater the scope and scale of any disaster, the greater our dependence on private sector expertise… and the more complicated the public-private partnership.  Hence the profound importance of framing, training, and exercising the partnership prior to a crisis.

In the aftermath of a wide-spread catastrophe, federal, state, and local government (what’s left of it) will have a crucial role in shaping the conditions for effective response and recovery.  But most of the actual restoration of essential services will be the task of the private sector.  Given this reality, we need more proactive cultivation of public-private partnerships well in advance of disaster.

With an earthquake, hurricane, or serious terrorist attack the troubled public-private relationship encounters a crucible of death, injury, and destruction. When and where this will next happen is unclear.  But it is entirely predictable it will happen and — as we have seen in the Gulf — neither sector is well-prepared to work with the other.  Both are more inclined to react than to prepare.  Each is suspicious of the other.  Many in the media are motivated to aggravate the tension and accentuate any emerging conflict.

The public sector’s reflex for safety and risk aversion can be helpful to the private sector’s readiness for (and even avoidance of) the worst case. The more devastating the disaster, the more we need the creative and risk-taking urgency of the private sector.  But neither sector entirely excludes the concerns of the other.   It is not an issue of either-or; it is a matter of allowing the strength of each to emerge — even merge — together.

For further consideration:

House Energy and Commerce Memorandum on events immediately prior to the explosion (May 25) and related New York Times report.

Crisis hits home, spreading arc of anger (New York Times)

The New Culture War by Arthur C. Brooks (Washington Post)

Lessons from the Oil Spill (Interfaith Voices Audio)

Public and Private Management: Are they fundamentally the same in all unimportant respects? by Graham T. Allison, Jr.

Guiding Principles for Public-Private Collaboration (World Economic Forum and the United Nations)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 26, 2010 @ 4:13 am

Well another interesting and insightful post by Phil. There is underlying truth in his analytic framework and underlying deception. Just as in the current event of the oil spill. What in fact seems to have occurred is that lobbyist systematically ensured that even data capture and basic science and engineering skills were not made available to the regulators or adminsitrators relevant to this crisis. It was not just will that was not avialable to those who were trusted with doing the public’s business but also the fundamental capabilities. This now seems pervasive throughout much of government, whatever the level. Ah yes, Oliver Wendell Holmes and is statement that “Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society” or some variant thereof. It now appears that the public did pay for a system that did not provide needed oversight. This is what should be examined but the fact that Congress itself and the Executive Branch would have to analyze their role in the event, not just BP makes it unlikely that the Commission established by Executive Order and published in today’s Federal Register will accomplish much. Just as Congress has been repeatedly identified as a problem in its organization for Homeland Security, again Congress may be the root of not “all evil” but all federal failures. Is this expecting too much? Well why has the MSM so willing failed to take on the tough issues? And the Congress? And the Executive Branch? Are there structural flaws? None seem to know.

Comment by Mark R. Lupo, CBCP

May 26, 2010 @ 6:49 am

Thought provoking article, Phil, and so on point. Interesting comparison between the philosophy of business as risk taking and the public sector side as seeking more stability and predictability. Having worked to mesh efforts in these two sectors for several years now, I don’t think I had really thought of it in those terms. How familiar are you with the work being done out of the CDC Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health on Meta-Leadership for Emergency Preparedness? Excellent initiative and one that focuses on exactly what you are discussing, bringing together the private sector, government/public safety, and non-profits to work together before the next event happens, whether natural or man-made. Powerful concept and one that bears continued development as we head into a future requiring this level of partnership in our preparedness and response efforts.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 26, 2010 @ 7:32 am


Self-interest is among the most resilient of human characteristics, and I agree there are aspects of our political system that tempt self-interest to excess. But, at least so far, I see the events in the Gulf unfolding much more as Greek tragedy, where an excess of strength, rather than weakness or evil intent,is driving the plot.


I was not at all familiar with the work you have outlined. But now I am (we are). Looks like there is a very informative website — and info on some upcoming public-private summits — at http://www.metaleadershipsummit.org/ Thanks for the connection.

Comment by CitizenJoe

May 27, 2010 @ 6:21 am

An American tragedy indeed among it seems many in the last decades as void in leadership prevails!

A Greek tragedy was never so transparent in lack of compassion as BP’s willingness to knowingly risk it – BP’s void in emotion could never be compared with the Greek tragedy! This is more than a Greek tragedy, it is a travesty! unacceptable….

The sophistication, the technology at hand in this 21st century versus outright apathy, indifference, prowess in power, a demeanor of let’s take a chance, knowing full well the pressures exerted at this depth and while we at BP employ the brightest minds and advice has suggested having – preparedness – on standby as this “experiment” in drilling this deep and within these pressures, in case of failure, knowing full well the catastrophic scenario which will unfold, well, let’s move ahead as the revenue generated from drilling this “exsperiment” far outway any other concerns We at BP should have of fellow citizen and the environment for after all, We are only beholden to our shareholders!

You, Mr. President, having responsibility for any such event, knowing full well that BP could have averted this before the first explosion, however despite all which could happen understood that in the event of such failure, valuable lessons would be learned and applied to future such drilling at depths where pressure provokes such real failures –

Unacceptable – knowing the full extent of what failure in deep water drilling could mean to the oceans and souls who would lose so much in identity, greed in the 21st century has again eroded not only the marshes and livlihood for so many, but mankind’s confidence and trust in one another.

The world is riddled with corruption for it is all about money, but is it? It is not only the fragile eco-environment compromised, but a global concern that provides substantiation that We too are placed in much peril!

God Bless us all!

Our Creator has proclaimed in verse and is witness to all!

Citizen Joe

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