Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 11, 2010

Resilience on the (Deepwater) Horizon?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 11, 2010

Managing risk and nurturing resilience are like night and day.  They each aim at a similar destination.  But they take very different roads to get there.  Along the Gulf of Mexico we are driving mostly at night along a very narrow road at the top of a steep cliff.

According to the Financial Times, Tony Hayward, British Petroleum’s CEO, said the company is “looking for new ways to manage ‘low-probability, high-impact’ risks such as the Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident.”

But in the Washington Post, Richard Posner explains, “There is a natural tendency to postpone preventive actions against dangers that are likely to occur at some uncertain point in the future (‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,’ as the Bible says), especially if prevention is expensive, and especially because there is so much else to do in the here and now… It seems that no one has much incentive to adopt or even call for safeguards against low-probability, but potentially catastrophic disasters.”

Faced with an actual and still growing disaster, for the moment Mr. Hayward and the rest of us have plenty of incentive to consider low-likelihood, high-consequence possibilities.  This is, as a first grade teacher might say, a teachable moment.  In an early June Wall Street Journal op-ed, British Petroleum’s CEO listed three lessons-learned so far:

  • “First, we need better safety technology…”
  • “Second, we need to be better prepared for a subsea disaster. It is clear that our industry should be better prepared to address deep sea accidents of this type and magnitude…”
  • “Third, the industry should carefully evaluate its business model…”  This is corporate-speak for cutting out sub-contractors and tightening command-and-control.  In related comments reported by The Financial Times, “Mr. Hayward argued that the industry could cut the risk of serious accidents in deep-water drilling to ‘one in a billion or one in a trillion’, but it might mean changing the way the drilling industry works.” 

These are entirely reasonable risk-management responses: enhanced prevention technology, improved response capacity, and tightening the relationship between responsibility and accountability.  Such risk reduction is helpful.  But in claiming to reduce risk to a one-in-a-billion or one-in-a-trillion chance (quite a range), Mr. Hayward demonstrates he still has some learning to do.

Drilling for oil anywhere involves risk, even more a mile under the ocean. The risk is amplified by an operating environment that is especially sensitive to the risk.  It is also an operating environment that complicates risk containment.  

One more lesson: Risk Persists. We can try to transfer, avoid, and reduce risk, but risk does not disappear.  The more we try to convince ourselves the risk has been managed away, the more we are probably putting ourselves at risk.  The best attribute of an effective risk manager is a persistent bit of professional (not personal) paranoia.

Which points toward another lesson: because our ability to manage risk is innately limited, the resilience of our environment, our resources, and our purposes are especially important.  Resilience is not a risk-management strategy.  Resilience is much more fundamental.

Derek Armitage developed the resilience definition I use, “(1) the ability of a system to absorb or buffer disturbances and still maintain its core attributes; (2) the ability of the system to self-organize, and (3) the capacity for learning and adaptation in the context of change.” According to the evidence so far, the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform will be a great case-study of a non-resilient system.

Armitage also reminds us, “Systems experience changes that are unknowable and discontinuous, and involve sudden and dramatic flips.”  This insight into how complex systems operate is not yet common sense.  In fact, it remains uncommon among many – arguably most – managers, engineers, and others who are deeply invested in systems continuity. Since April 20 British Petroleum, TransOcean, and all of us have had the opportunity to learn quite a bit more about complex adaptive systems.  Have we learned?

Last week Mr. Hayward explained in his WSJ op-ed, “The industry and the government did not anticipate this type of accident—one in which all the ‘failsafe’ mechanisms failed.”  This is a valuable observation. But there is no evidence – yet – that Mr. Hayward or many in government, media, or the general public have learned that inability to predict is innate to catastrophic potential.  A catastrophe is the outcome of an unpredictable cascading failure of inter-related systems.

During his June 4 press briefing Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander, said, “One of the things we may want to look at in the future – when we look for a worst-case scenario – (is how) we look at a discharge and the equipment needed to deal with that particular discharge. I don’t think any response plan ever contemplated response over this long period of time moving into a hurricane season.”   Thinking through how to deal with worst-case scenarios is helpful.  But complex systems will sooner or later present a worst-case we did not predict.  It is important to manage risk, but risk persists. 

Given the reality of persistent risk, we should nourish a resilience that goes beyond any set of specific risks. Resilience is an expression of how the various elements of a system are in relationship with one another.  Over the last twenty years Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Prize laureate in economics, has identified the principal attributes of resilience in human communities, including:

  • Broad based participation, collaboration, and deliberation:  Our risk management discussion is now focused on how to enhance command-and-control through new business models and better regulation. (see June 6 New York Times) But if this is our only strategy it will discourage meaningful community-based and regional risk assessment, under-value public-private partnerships in preparedness, and fail to cultivate a shared vision of how risk-taking and resilience-making can contribute to the common good.  Command-and-control has a narrow benefit.  Collaborating-and-creating has broad benefit, but it does not come cheap.
  • Multilayered and polycentric organizational structures: In the aftermath of the disaster, the risk management discussion is now focused on how to narrow and focus operations.  Tactically this makes sense.  But such narrowing will reduce strategic resilience unless our approach also allows for cross-cutting federal, state, local, and private-sector involvement in deciding how risk is undertaken. What is most efficient is not always most effective, especially in the most consequential risk-taking.
  • Networked organizational structures with mutual accountability built into how the network functions:  The authentic acceptance of mutual accountability is crucial.  A couple of weeks ago the Obama administration was experimenting with the notion of “collective responsibility.”  While roughly coherent with mutual accountability, the public was not receptive. The concept cannot be imposed after-the-fact.  Mutual accountability is cultivated over time through the other components of resilience-making.
  • Content-rich and meaningful interaction regularly occurring across the network:  One of the reasons that command-and-control or broadcast strategies (such as the current BP advertising campaign) have limited pay-offs is the lack of interaction.  The more interaction, the more potential collaboration, the more likely an acceptance of mutual accountability.  But making this investment in advance is non-trivial.
  • Facilitative and/or catalytic leadership (in sharp contrast with authoritative or control-oriented leadership): Thad Allen has, sometimes under considerable pressure, been the most authoritative and the most facilitative leader involved in the Deepwater Horizon response.  His uniform and demeanor contribute to the sense of authority.  But the admiral’s rhetoric and approach has been facilitative, even to point of continuing to treat BP as a “partner” long after public opinion has demonized the company.
  • All the preceding attributes and their activities produce knowledge of both the system and its environment:  Making resilience is the outcome of many parts. Through all the preceding steps a web of relationships is established.  This web is much more likely to survive in some form, no matter how hard it is hit.  If elements of the web are taken out, what persists retains the knowledge – intention and potential – of the entire web.
  • All the preceding attributes contribute to individual and system-wide learning, which is the application of knowledge to maintaining and/or potentially extending the boundaries within which the system maintains its equilibrium:  A resilient web of relationships continues to learn and grow even – sometimes especially – under stress.  We are motivated to learn by our relationships across the web and our mutual accountability.  For the same reasons we are also motivated to apply what we have learned, which is key to maintaining, restoring, or extending the systems equilibrium.
  • The sum of the preceding attributes creates a sense of mutual trust between most of the participants in the system.  Today there is very little trust in evidence along the Gulf (see BP makes progress on spill, less on trust).  This reflects the narrow, “business-like” relationship of the industry to the Gulf region before the disaster.  The lack of trust also reflects a nearly exclusive federal role in regulating the industry before the disaster.  Unfamiliarity does not nurture trust. Trust is built through ongoing substantive interaction over time. The disaster unfolding in the gulf would challenge the most robust circle-of-trust, but there had been no sustained effort prior to the disaster to form the circle.

The teachable moment is upon us, but I perceive the resilience lesson is yet to be learned.  The lessons are, in many ways, coming too late for British Petroleum and others involved in the Gulf disaster.  What about the rest of us?

Risk management and resilience complement each other, but are largely parallel paths.  Risk management is focused on defining the down-side and controlling it.  Resilience imagines the upside and tries to create it.

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Comment by Claire B. Rubin

June 11, 2010 @ 9:22 am

Thanks for your post and your perspective on the new buzz word, resilience. I cited it on my blog.

Comment by Mark Chubb

June 11, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

Thanks, Phil, for some wonderful insights. I was particularly taken by Armitage’s three-part definition. It certainly makes a more useful starting point for discussion than many other usages I’ve seen, which tend to emphasize either robustness (ability to take a punch) or adaptation (learning to avoid the punch) but only occasionally both elements without addressing intentionality or purpose.

Thinking about Armitage’s definition brought to mind some discussions with colleagues who have asked me to distinguish resilience from sustainability (a very Portland sort of discussion). Many wonder whether resilience as a buzz word has simply become another way of saying sustainability without provoking an eye-rolling gesture or yawn from others. I would like to think they are different, albeit overused, descriptions with separate but very complementary characteristics.

To the extent that both of them seek to explain human behavior (or at least frame human understanding of relationships) within complex systems, I tend to see sustainability as a primarily rational response to taming our appetites. As we practice disciplines that lead to sustainability, we acquire new appreciations of our needs and wants as well as our relationship to resources and one another. The more we internalize these virtuous behaviors as values, the more likely they are to yield added value to us and others that we might experience through positive emotions as resilience. The satisfaction that we can cope with a situation or that we may be bowed but far from broken signals this response in us and others.

In this sense, resilience expresses itself in a far more primitive but perhaps more purposeful way than the rational and deterministic sort of response that characterizes sustainability. The difference between purpose or meaning, which is provided by resilience, and characterization of options and alternative responses or behaviors associated with sustainability suggests that resilience may not depend upon sustainability but it certainly benefits from it.

Thanks again for another thought-provoking post.

Comment by Philip Palin

June 11, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

Mark, I had not previously considered the relationship between resilience and sustainability. I like what you have written above. A quick, off-the-cuff and potentially inaccurate reinforcement from my decades-ago study of Latin.

Sustain is almost certainly a combination of tenere (to hold) and the prefix meaning up or down. If my memory is correct, then — as you suggest above — there is a conscious human choice and action to hold in place by external means. (I don’t have the time to look up right now.)

In contrast (and here I am more certain of the etymology), resilient is a compound of salire meaning to leap, gush forth, or sally forth. Re is the prefix meaning again. So… something is resilient when it leaps again, gushes again, et cetera. This is much more an internally generated action.

Does this interesting difference have practical implications? Well, I think your third paragraph begins to suggest an affirmative answer.

I am also inclined to think of sustainable things and resilient people. But that may just be a bias. Worth further thought.

Comment by Mark Chubb

June 11, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

Ah, the wisdom of the ancients! The internal/external dichotomy works for me, and reinforces the point I was trying to make. I also accept the people/things dichotomy, especially if we consider societies, economies, and the rules they apply to one another things discovered or invented by people to either explain them or control them.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 11, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

Great post and comments. And now the bottom line ( a term I hate)! This event will be a major test of the resilience of government in the US for now and never more. The only larger event would be conduct of warfare on the contintental US. Gear up guys and gals because until the Big One in CA this is the big one for the US. We are being watched for performance and resilience. So far grade of F as far as I am concerned. Why? Both BP and its largest attempt to influence the public through MSM ever and will get bigger has decided to minimize the event and the politicos are complicit. Looking like the American people are finally going to be major witness to the corruption of government and its processed. Am I overstating? Time will tell.

Comment by Resilience versus Deceit

June 12, 2010 @ 7:41 am

Managing risk and nurturing resilience…interesting input, however as one engaged night and day in his professional work and truly compassionate commitment to both people so negatively affected by the “Great Oil Spill of the 21st Century” and the earthquake in Haiti which took place some six months ago and very little progress to be seen with much suffering ongoing every moment….

“Tightening the relationship between responsibility and accountability….”

As I represent global “experts” in addressing wastewater and water purification development projects, much needed infrastructure, parctical, permanent, eco-friendly, earthquake resistant housing with solar and rainwater retention package, skimmers, booms and so much other technology….and first off whether it be the USCG or Southern Command, hats off to you and thank you for your commitment to country and service….however that’s where my appreciation for human being ends!

I (we) are sickened, truly disgusted by what we are subjected to when we see so many other souls so victimized by not only a US government so inept and corrupted, by nation after nation whcih has turned its cheek the other way and allowed the less fortunate Haitian population sit in the mud all this time….The UN should be disowned in every way…it is truly inherent with the same distrustful and deceitful and corruptive practices which BP portrays in its intentional deceit.

We are at great peril! You Mr. President and both side of the Congressional aisle should indeed be running to the exit door, NOW!

What you Mr. President have accomplished by your ongoing television appearances and your constant useage of Air Force One is to prove government’s inability to portray any resilience as you are gridlocked by partisanship and corruptness by corporate entities which have taken ownership of not only the US, but Europe and other –

Government led by “smug-smiled Pelosi and “Mr. Barney” and so many others in and out of the beltway all the way down to the local Selectmen have proven how far the lack of compassion has evolved in “responsibility and accountability….” A present administration who has failed so blantantly, not in every way, however in the important fiscal impact of a President and both sides of the aisle creating a deficit growing daily soon to place the last nail in the coffin of a bankrupt US and world economically, spiritually and every other way..We are not only leading to War once again, but the real prospect of extinction which only by the hand of our Creator will not happen entirely.

$12trillion+ in deficit, BP giving dictate to the government, a world with much uncaring of those who sit in squalor. The Jew whose home is threatened by missles falling from the skies, but a world immersed in compassion only for those whose agenda is one more example of the deceit, the ill-intent, let me remidn you again Mr. President as we have not forgotten Hank and the guys and the lack in transparency unknowing in accountability of at least $750 billion in stimulus monies –

These are teaching momements…we are really thinking that people are learning something..yes, We are learning just how resilient we must have to be as enslaved individuals, good people of Haiti, residents of the Gulf coast, the Palestinian who looks not to his fellow brethren, the Hebrew, but to Dubai and to the “Brutes of Tehran” who see marble building constructed in the sands and they left as pawns by dysfunctional and individuals like BP who could give a damn other than making sure their coffers are overfilled with monies…

World War II played out less than 100 years ago and here we go again, the same deceit, the bankers, governments whose leaders safeguard their own, while sending hopeless individuals to do the dirty work to enable not resilience, or responsibility in assuring trasnparency, but self-agenda.

While your discussions herein are thought provoking and you should be applauded by your caring for others, unfortunately for us involvd and affected each and every day, time is running out as we know that digging for oil is not a new technology. The risks were known. BP chose not to spend a dime in preparedness and cares little even today as potrayed by its ongoing attempts in and out of court to assure that it can use whatever means to circumvent any responsibility and accountability.

One of my solutions, BP to give each legitimate claim not only what it owes, but to assure even fairer compensation, 10,000 shares of BP stock..the reason..when BP reopens this well in less than two years to recapture the wealth it has found beneath, each claimant now has an interest in this well and others in the region. You know that BP will never go bankrupt as its resources far too valuable and its ego so arrogant in demeanor!

Just like the good people of Haiti sitting in the mud, the good people of the Gulf holding their $5,000 check from BP in hand will be soaked in oil for even far longer and you Mr. President, your White House staff and BP executives should be handcuffed and locked away in your pledge in oath before the Lord that people will have Rights and be protected..what rubbish!

A lesson? Unfortunately history has supposedly taught us lessons and we have a Bible in this Judeo-Christian based beloved Republic which clearly gives the lessons to be learned, however it is greed and arrogance which prevails for it is too difficult to read history and the Bible as you, the community organizer and junior Senator from Chicago has proven in your obviously limited scope.

Never mind the slaves of the past and never mind impressing us with the lessons of the Koran Mr. President, we are fully aware of slavery and of the dysfunctional and hatred among those in the Middle East for generations.

What we see in the 21st century, Haitians subjected to the elements and political corruption, the people in the Gulf region getting a very real understanding of what every government has been since Babylon, corrupt and Mr. President, unfortunately we are all enslaved, no matter color of skin or economic status to those who have no concern for responsibility and accountability as the 21st Century enslavement and dictate whether by government to people or corporate entities to government, despite our spirituality which will comfort us in our last breath, our Life is at peril!

Good post, appreciated discussion, however at the darkest hours, the clock is ticking and it ios quite evident with no Churchill and foresight as well as commitment to fellow man, hold onto your hats for the ride is for sure to get much perilous as the months ahead arrive with so much more anguish!

God Bless all of us!

Comment by Philip Palin

June 12, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

Mr. Tingus:

In the blogosphere there are very few rules, but one of the few is to avoid responding to those who engage in ad-hominem attacks (please see: http://www.fallacyfiles.org/adhomine.html) I am, clearly, breaking this rule in responding to you.

It is the goal of Homeland Security Watch to avoid both personal attacks and political partisanship. This does not mean we avoid critical thinking, or criticism, or hide our political preferences. But it does mean that, whatever our preferences, we endeavor to address the homeland security issues of the day with fresh eyes-and-ears, humility, and intellectual restraint.

When you consistently attack the same personalities in the same demeaning ways, you undermine your argument. Even more, you discourage us from reading you. Too often there is in your approach too much anger, too much self-righteousness, and too much repetition. I typically leap over your comments without reading them. This is unfortunate, because buried beneath your abuse of others is sometimes an interesting insight.

Today I am responding for two reasons: First, out of respect for my readers, including you, I want to engage you as directly as I can regarding how to offer constructive contributions to this blog.

Second, I am responding because I perceive the anger at our political leaders you have expressed — especially in regard to the disaster in the Gulf — is wide-spread and it makes no sense to me.

My father, a rock-ribbed Republican, who watches Fox religiously, and is consistently opposed to President Obama notes the anger at Mr. Obama regarding the oil spill is childish, self-indulgent, reality-rejecting opportunism.

The Economist, a rightist, libertarian, British news weekly writes in its June 5-11 edition:

A disgusted nation is likely to turn on its leaders, and so America has done. This is in the face of a large and, it seems, increasingly well co-ordinated operation to respond to oil as it comes to shore, and over a thousand boats out at sea working with booms, skimmers and dispersants. An army of 500 claims adjusters has yet to reject any of the 31,010 claims BP has so far received for financial loss. Other probes are looking at what happened and what the future of the offshore industry should be. Criminal and civil investigations into negligence are being launched. This is a long way from the dysfunctional response to the far larger catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina…

(Read the rest at http://www.economist.com/node/16274343)

Without anger, rancor, or name-calling, can you explain the anger, rancor, and name-calling? What is it about this event or your worldview that results in such a confident accusation that our political leaders are personally complicit in the disaster and deceitful in their purposes?

And to my colleagues and fellow readers: Confíteor vobis, fratres, quia peccávi nimis cogitatióne, verbo, ópere et omissióne: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 13, 2010 @ 11:28 am

Watched Meet the Press and WH spokesperson Axlerod this AM and President Obama speaking to nation Tuesday night.

Since nothing really new in the Gulf of Mexico must be something new at WH? Time will tell!

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 14, 2010 @ 9:14 am

Okay now questioning WH sequencing. Why meet BP officials after the spill speech? Fallout may make meeting problematic in my mind or is this just negotitiating strategy?

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Tara: The bodhisattva of risk management

July 29, 2010 @ 5:08 am

[…] a process of probing, sensing, and responding.  This probing is similar to Elinor Ostrom’s participation/collaboration/deliberation.  The emerging evidence suggests that even among those physically proximate on the Deepwater […]

Comment by Jerome Kahan

April 7, 2013 @ 7:48 am

Better late than ever. See Homleland Security Final Report, “Risk and Resilience: Exploring the Relationship,” 22 November 2010. From project I ran when I was at the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Insitute (now an independent analyst). Report has beekn cleared for public release. See Institure website. J Kahan

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