I am in the bad day business. Whether the cause is natural, accidental or intentional my role is preparing for bad days. My specific role has become helping others prepare for very, very bad days.
It is my impression most readers of HLSWatch are in a similar business.
While personally most of my days are fine — even very fine — I know bad days will come. I have experienced them. I have been with others shortly after their experience of such days.
One of my favorite memories from when I was 8 or 9 is of laying upside down on the backyard slide on a bright summer day reading about Vesuvius burying Pompeii and the tsunami swamping Lisbon. History books are mostly about somebody’s bad day.
A few years ago I was in the prevent-bad-days business. In some ways that was a better job. But no matter how good you are: prevention will fail. The bad day will come. Very bad days seem to be coming more often.
Last Thursday I reported on an “emerging threats forum” that had decided the best strategy for the most serious threats is to:
- Inform the public of the threats,
- Explain that government is not capable of prevention or timely response regarding many threats,
- Encourage and facilitate enhanced individual, neighborhood, school, and workplace (other) preparedness to be self-sustaining.
I was surprised the emerging threats forum chose a “public engagement” strategy. In my experience, these sort of sessions are usually dominated by men (mostly) who want to exercise control and prefer developing systems and methods subject to their control. At a similar session the week before there had been an extended discussion regarding how to ensure the persistent appearance of control (even though being out-of-control was the implicit reality).
Maybe it was the list of emerging threats that discouraged the usual symptoms of homeland security’s own version of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The facilitators chose largely novel or large-scale threats that dwarfed even the biggest ego.
Maybe it was the age of the participants. It was a bifurcated group. There were several “older” (apologies) folks like me and a roughly equal number of young. The young are accustomed to not being allowed to exercise control. The old have often discovered control can be an illusion. Those in-between — perhaps still fighting for control — were a distinct minority (probably because that age group mostly remained in the cockpit while we were in the seminar room).
Maybe it was an increasing recognition of and respect for complexity. The discussion gave considerable attention to linkages, signals, and unpredictability.
In any case, one of the younger people was the first to suggest there is a problem with unrealistic expectations related to government capabilities in major disasters. Sandy was still on the mind of many and mostly there was the sense of a bullet dodged. “It could easily have been much, much worse,” seemed the consensus. “This was not even a hurricane when it came ashore and look at the consequences.” And still it was and is plenty bad.
Unrealistic expectations enable individual, family, and private sector choices that increase vulnerability. Government responsiveness on a typical bad day sets up unrealistic expectations for response on a very, very bad day.
While there seemed to be considerable consensus that “unrealistic expectations” is a key strategic insight and “public engagement” could be an effective solution, the group perceived public engagement would be very difficult to achieve. Among the problems discussed:
- Many in government perceive public engagement as a political, not an administrative task. Many government officials are reluctant and uncomfortable engaging the public and nearly as uncomfortable with politicians.
- When government does engage the public there is a tendency to over-organize the process. It is difficult for many officials to admit weakness to the public (One participant said, government officials tend to “talk at rather than with the public.”
- The public is not listening and tends to deny or discount risk until it is too late.
There was not time at last week’s meeting to seriously engage these challenges. But for what it’s worth, I will list some personal suggestions.
Government — and especially the homeland security professions — need to give more attention to hiring and using brokers, facilitators, relationship-builders and others skilled at bridging the private-public divide. Politicians are, by the way, often very skilled in these methods.
Government needs to find existing networks of private-public and private-private connections. These preexisting connections are much more likely to persist than anything created and managed by government. Politicians are often expert navigators of these networks.
Within these existing networks there is a need to identify or recruit independent champions of prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery, or whatever other purpose. Once again, politicians can be very effective champions within their preexisting networks.
Government should ask and listen about twice as much as it tells. Politicians are usually not good at this skill.
In my experience when the foregoing preconditions are in place up to 80 percent (occasionally more) of individuals, families, and private organizations are very willing and interested to be in meaningful dialogue with the government. The public is more likely to listen when they perceive the public sector is listening to them. The public sector is more likely to listen to and engage with a neighborhood or business group or similar organization.
In my experience the public is surprised when told what the government cannot do in a disaster and about 10 to 20 percent will initially strongly resist what they are hearing. But most are able to quickly recognize their own unrealistic expectations and begin to shift, especially if they get some informed help making the shift.
This is, I suggest, a model that extends beyond homeland security to a wide range of social, economic and political concerns. Fantastic success in implementing all of my suggestions will not reduce the number of bad days, though I think consequences can often — if not always — be mitigated.
Maybe this is already clear enough, but to be sure I will add: What all these tactics and techniques are really about is making and maintaining meaningful human relationships that happen to engage disaster risk among other matters. Other matters will usually be more important. But disaster risk is worth including among the concerns around which the relationships emerge and move. It is kinship with each other and our shared prospects. Get the relationships right and the rest will be much easier to engage.