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:
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)