Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 21, 2010

Fantasies of control; realities of readiness

Filed under: Catastrophes,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 21, 2010

Back in May a reader’s comment to Homeland Security Watch recommended a text written in 1999.  I finally read it over the weekend.  Here’s an excerpt:

Contingency plans for large oil spills on the open sea are fantasy documents… The utility of contingency plans for major oil spills is more symbolic than instrumental. Their production gives the impression that organizations, especially corporations and regulatory agencies, can effectively manage the negative externalities of massive oil production. These plans,furthermore, organize political discussions about oil disaster, tanker safety, conservation, and offshore oil leasing.  To the extent they do so they shape the categories available with which to talk about corporate power, government neglect, and the consequences of huge oil spills… Oil spill fantasy documents contribute to the notion that “the problem” of major oil spills comes from insufficient money, lack of determination, and poor coordination.  One consequence of framing the issue this way is that some questions — about conservation, about corporate power, and political risk — rarely get asked outside what is defined as the environmentalist fringe.

This is from page 23, Mission Improbable: Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster by Lee Clarke.

The text is a credible critique of our — delusionary — tendency to confuse profound uncertainty with predictiable risk.  The critique is especially persuasive when read in combination with today’s headlines, such as:

Failure of rig’s last line of defense tied to myriad factors (New York Times)

BP was told of safety fault “weeks before blast” (BBC)

Markey will demand oil companies re-write spill-response plans(Bloomberg Business Week)

What Mission Improbable does not do is point us to what — if anything — we might do to avoid such self-defeating fantasies (other than avoid temptation to hubris).  Sometimes we must accurately critique before we can effectively create.

For more creative purposes, please check out the significant resources made available online by the Prince William Sound Citzens’ Advisory Council

Established in the aftermath of the Exxon-Valdez disaster, this public-private “collaboratory” looks and behaves like a whole host of resilient communities documented by Elinor Ostrom and others over the years.

There are lessons here — whether you are concerned with natural, accidental, or intentional threats — for how we create capacity to engage what we cannot control.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 21, 2010 @ 6:35 am

Well disclosure! Have not read Lee Clarke’s book which I intend to do. It seems that I cannot quite get my head around Lee’s basic point as explained by Phil and Phil’s seeming thrust that no plan can every capture all contingencies. Or series of plans. I basically agree with that point but disagree with any notion that planning is not a useful arrow in the quiver of EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT and HOMELAND SECURITY. Again as President Eisenhower is reputed to have stated during a large-scale mobilization exercise in the 50’s in which he played stating “Planning is everything but the plan is nothing.”
So my point has always been for planners to try and percieve events that may require mobilization of resources, personnel, funding and other assets to respond to the event. And since the worst case cannot usually be foreseen or addressed then the plan must identifiy how its capabilities can be surged upwards if possible and what that mobilization effort will entail.
Perhaps strangely, President Ronald Reagan called for a unified civil-military mobilization effort in NSDD 47 issued in 1982 and based on the worst case domestic scenario of a large-scale catastrophic earthquake or all-out conventional warfare. Drafte to identify not “who is in charge” but to identify in advance “who can do what” the primary purpose was a notification document that some organizations that had other day jobs might just be tasked to do related things when national survival was at stake. Partially rescinded by NSDD 188 that mobilization document still stands as planning guidance but unfortunately not reflected in any of the HSPDs or NSDD’s issued subsequently by various Presidents.

Well folks, the Gulf Spill may not threaten National Survival but it does directly threaten five (five) Gulf States and the time has come to deal with the planning for a worst case where this “spill” continues for several years. So time to roll up our (US) sleeves and stop pretending that it will end sooner rather than later.

The real problem with the products of the planners is that those charged with implentation ususally have other issues that are more pressing until the actual incident/event occurs. Well this is no longer a matter of choice.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 21, 2010 @ 6:47 am

Bill, Let me try to clarify (my view, not necessarily Lee Clarke’s). I agree with you that anticipating threats, identifying risks, taking action on prevention and mitigation, and considering in advance strategic and operational capacity to respond to emergencies is helpful and important. Doing this together, training, exercising, and evaluating together is all helpful. But too often we base this entire process around an approach to planning that is intellectually mistaken and, as a result, the entire process is corrupted. There are problems that can (and should) be anticipated, but cannot be predicted. We cannot, in other words, define the problem with sufficient specificity to develop a realistic tactical plan. In such a situation, the development of a detailed tactical plan can actually add to our risk by giving us misplaced confidence in our ability to control what is beyond our control.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 21, 2010 @ 7:52 am

Okay acknowledged but now how do you organize for response to the unexpected incident/event?

One of the things that fascinated me about the September 2007 National Preparedness Guidelines that replaced the Interim Preparedness Goal issued March 2005 is that neither addressed catastrophic events or even routine disasters in regulated sectors of the economy. Was this a gap that has now led to the expected failures in the response to the Gulf Oil Spill, assuming that you argue that deep oil ocean drilling was in fact subject to regulation, no matter how ineffective? othe h tthdisslant

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 21, 2010 @ 8:07 am

For examples of extensive and preemptive [legal] statutory regulatory schemes that may be deficient, review the discussion of regulating to “protect public health and safety” in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (1990″) or the Water Pollution and Control Act of 1972 [more commonly referred to as the “Clean Water Act” and make you own determination if the primary purpose of these statutes as an example was protection of ‘Public Health and Saftey” or otherwise. My point of course is the Emergency Management, emergency planning and other concepts of contingencies contemplated by the regulators were not the subject of greatest emphasis or concern. These all relate to the Commerce Clause of the Constitution and are not statutes premised on the so-called Tax and Spend Clause, Article 1 Section 8 that includes promotion of the general welfare. When the Constitution was written no concept of “Public Health and Safety” existed but is instead a concept founded in the modern Adminstrative State largely created by Judge Kennishaw “Mountain” Landis in the 1930’s. That state was erected on the practical notion that not all could be reconciled adminstrative by hearings adverse or otherwise but in fact included generic regulation.
Perhaps, the law establishing the Congressional Budget Office should be modified to create a “Public Health and Safety and Emergency Management Office” that could issue reports not just on budget implications but the implications for public health and safety. Perhaps both incentives in those draft bills for public health and safety could be analyzed as well as disincentives.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 21, 2010 @ 8:20 am

Since the Long Blog or its more concise rendering as Resilience: The Grand Strategy, I have pushed for broad-based participation, collaboration, and deliberation well in advance. This will build the foundation for other elements of resilience. I see the relationships emerging from the process of participation, collaboration, and deliberation as the essential pre-condition. Everything else, in my experience, depends on the quality of these relationships. Bill, I am not accusing you of this, but in other settings I have encountered professionals who “acknowledge” this as a principle, but entirely ignore it as a practical prerequisite that takes signficant time and investment.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

June 21, 2010 @ 8:24 am


You say participation, collaboration, and deliberation — by whom?


Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 21, 2010 @ 8:30 am

Claire, What Ostrom et al have found — and my more limited experience also reflects — is that the participation, collaboration, and deliberation must involve all stakeholders, with particular attention to those who will be most affected by the emergency-disaster-catastrophe. I think this is where the Prince William Sound Citizens’ Advisory Council offers such fascinating resources.

I am frustrated that I have to leave for meetings that are likely to keep me off-line much of today. I think your question and Bill’s response have begun to uncover a key aspect of resilience that I have failed to make sufficiently clear. But maybe others can take it up and — through this participation, collaboration and deliberation — a better answer will emerge.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 21, 2010 @ 9:19 am

Just noting for the record that money talks and walks as to who gets to cooperate and collaborate deliberate. One fascinating development in the Obama Administration is the very very large number of environmental issues piling up on Carol Browner’s desk. Perhaps a needed government refore to promote collaboration, cooperation, and deliberation would be to have each of the almost 50 offices in the Executive Office of the WH publish a list of items under consideration by staff and decision makes every 90 days. This would be sort of like the Regulatory Agenda published in the Federal Register on a semi-annual basis.

AT least at the moment at Thomas.loc.gov we can find out pending legislation and its status even if often only the staff of Congress and the lobbyists know what is in it. Perhaps a sworn statement under penalty of perjury should be signed by each member of Congress before the final vote on any legislation stating the following: “I have read in its entirety bill number —–” but of course it would be futile to add the words “And I understand its implications for my constituents.”

Comment by Art Botterell

June 21, 2010 @ 10:49 am

In a better world it might be feasible, but in this one I wonder whether the sort of universal stakeholder participation Phil recommends might not itself be another kind of fantasy.

In practice the logistics alone, starting with the question of who gets to say what comprises “all stakeholders,” are daunting. (This, I believe, goes a long way to explain the Beltway Syndrome: once participation spreads beyond Washington things get very complicated and expensive, so better to invoke FACA and keep the problem small!)

And then we get to problems of information asymmetry and decision-making power. In almost every case I’ve seen “stakeholder involvement” has been largely, if not entirely, a rhetorical mechanism for getting folks’ fingerprints on somebody’s proposal.

This is particularly true in the case of “unforeseen” (i.e., under-recognized until after the fact) hazards. The agenda-setting activity of identifying and promoting attention to particular risks is in fact the first claim of that alleged expertise that Clarke suggests fantasy plans serve to bolster.

Personally I think the bottom-line message of Clarke’s book is one of humility. The first step to true resilience is to admit how much we don’t know and can’t control. There is, alas, no political benefit to be had from that.

So is government participation futile? I don’t think so… but I do believe it needs to be understand in a fairly narrow context and not mistaken for the whole of the undertaking.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

June 21, 2010 @ 11:03 am

My contention and experience is that most plans are not written for execution, but to meet the litigious nature and requirements of an organization.

Once crafted, they become ornamental shelf ware and their potential effectiveness is measured by their heft and not their merit.

I clearly remember on more than one occasion, both in Gov’t and Private Industry hearing self proclaimed experts, evaluators, and inspectors comment that its not what’s in the plan , as long as you have one, you’re good… dangerously wrong thinking and point of view.

Eisenhower said; “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” How very true.

Plans are worthless if they are not living documents that are constantly validated and used for tools of discovery, not simply something blown off once a year for some annual exercise dog and pony show.

A plan must not be a binary document; it must demonstrate robustness, redundancy, rapidity, and resourcefulness in its application and methodology. These are also elements of resilience. We all have different definitions, but a one dimensional plan, never exercised as a tool of discovery, but merely to check a box is in many aspects more dangerous than not having one at all.

Also dangerous is the outright plagiarism of plans. It’s not the borrowing that’s bad judgment, but the failure to read it in the first place and not correcting obvious differences in nuance. Imagine sitting down with an attorney and explaining that malfeasance!

They also can be limiting factors if they are in fact fantasy. They not only create allusion and delusion, but more so a false set of constraints and regulatory requirements that are unrealistic and completely untenable.

The more complicated and onerous the plan is, the less likely it is to be read, let alone exercised and validated.

So while there are millions if not billions of dollars spent on plan creation and templates, very few people actually read them. Even fewer are validated and executable. That’s been my experience.

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