Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 13, 2013

Public and Private Cultures: Context, concepts, communication, action (Part II)

Filed under: Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 13, 2013

Last week I launched an analysis of private-public tensions in homeland security.  I argued — very broadly (perhaps too broadly to be meaningful) — that the private and public sectors experience two very different contexts.  

The private sector context is perceived as  having significant opportunities for growth, where failure — especially when recognized and jettisoned — can be a key contributor to ultimate success.  The public sector context is perceived as (and often is) resource static or declining and failure is seen as wasteful and/or a source of personal humiliation.

With the exception of an exception by Bill Cumming, this analysis did not prompt comment.  In some cultures silence is a signal of disagreement.  In the United States silence is more often a matter of tacit agreement or apathetic disengagement.  In this instance, I assume the latter but would value your input to challenge or refine these reflections.


Different Contexts produce Different Concepts of Operation

If reality is static then planning (derived from the Latin for flat or plain or easy to be seen) is not only logical but is reasonably likely to work well.

Moreover if reality is static and failure is “not an option” then planning needs to be — and can be — very detailed.  It becomes the operational analogy of a symphony score.

In the military, emergency management and related public sector domains the score (plan) will often seem similar to an early 20th Century orchestral composition by Schoenberg or Berg or Eisler where excruciating detail unfolds from many pages of careful notation.  It is almost impossible to perform, but  with enough practice serious professionals can pull it off.  Audience reaction varies from wild applause to rioting in the aisle.

Planners are certainly aware they are planning for a non-static situation.  But their current reality — in terms of budget, assignment, measures, and more — is mostly static.  Their own success or failure is much more likely to emerge from the ongoing stasis than the anticipated non-stasis for which they are planning.

(Which reminds me of a Niels Bohr aphorism: “You’re not thinking, you’re just being logical.”)

Meanwhile the private sector — because it perceives expansive opportunity — is inclined to much looser plans, much more jazz than symphony.  This does not mean it is undisciplined, but it is a very different kind of discipline. “To the uninitiated, jazz seems like chaos, whereas the reality is that it’s very ordered,” according to Deniz Ucbasaran. “Underpinning the structure is a long tradition of education and practice.”

In the public sector a great deal of perceived value is embedded in the plan itself.  Developing explicit guidance for future execution is the goal. The private sector tends to focus more on the planning process.  Private value is generated by bringing together individuals and teams from across the enterprise with customers and suppliers and other stakeholders for problem-seeking discussions that emphasize choosing strategic predispositions.  Developing implicit understanding is a frequent goal.

Because private sector context is perceived to be ever-changing it is assumed most tactical decisions cannot be made until real-time is unfolding.  But strategic advantages can be recognized and claimed to better support tactical choices.

Both private and public planning is focused on an anticipated future.  Both private and public recognize the future is not precisely predictable.  But there is a tendency for the public sector to perceive that unpredictability is best engaged through systematically conceived pre-decisions, while the private sector is more inclined to identify present action and shared strategic objectives.

(In a future post I will try to describe what is actually done by the two sectors when the anticipated future unfolds.  It often seems to me counter-intuitive given these predispositions.)

Recently I was involved in a mostly public sector planning process for an unlikely but very consequential event.  There was a private sector guy having his baptismal experience in public-private joint planning.  It was a much better-than-average  public sector planning activity.  There was a substantive discussion of risks. It focused helpfully on meaningful objectives and how the plan should be amended before the next meeting of the inter-jurisdictional, inter-agency, (sort of ) private-public group.

But after the session the newbie private sector participant shared his frustration with the lack of immediate operational/functional action.  He was not referencing planning actions.  He wanted to know when actual changes in personnel, financial or operational commitments would be made to reflect the substantive discussion.  Of course such actions are almost never within the purview of public sector planners.

In a static — or receding — universe, planning relates to what should be done in the future.  In an expanding universe planning is mostly about what will be done now to shape the future.


Another Niels Bohr quote (can you guess who I am reading?): “Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.”  While the rhetoric above may sound confident, I am not. This is written out as a kind of discovery learning.  I hope you have some corrections or, at least, alternatives.

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

June 13, 2013 @ 1:01 am

I think I get where you’re going, but I need to chew on it a bit more to come up with more than a question and an observation.

The question: Are you using “expanding” to simply mean a non-static existence, or something else that I’m missing? In other words, that what constitutes reality (in terms of planning) will change, rather than the set of the possible will keep growing?

Observation: While no expert, I feel that the military may be in a different class than other public sector domains. It seems a bit more like a hybrid: it is resourced to a degree that it can plan for almost everything under the sun (in the 20’s we developed a plan to fight the British and invade Canada: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Plan_Red, and I’m assuming in a worst case scenario that is still on the shelf…; though news reports indicate that the one plan no one in the Pentagon envisioned needing was invading Afghanistan…), while at the same time emphasizing tactical flexibility to achieve strategic objectives.

In other words, most public sector entities spell out not only mission assignments but tactical direction. The military says, “our plan requires us to take that yonder hill…now just “git’ur done.”

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 13, 2013 @ 4:18 am


My use of expansive means much more than non-static. Many (most) private sector people who have achieved any “success” perceive the world to be growing, perpetually abundant, a place where every deficiency is an opportunity, where insight, creativity, persistence, and luck can turn lead into gold. It is a reality where risk is an ardent lover.

In my experience military planning is mostly helpful in scoping/scaling requirements for a set of anticipated needs (especially those exposed by the last war/battle) that can then be adapted to unanticipated analogies. So, the plan exposes what is needed to “take” Hill 924 in the Fulda Gap. The plan is then exercised, adapted, and resourced. Then two years later those resources are deployed to take Hill 623 in Northwestern Kuwait (or Valley X2 in Afghanistan).

In my particular world of supply chain analysis the military experience is especially seductive/treacherous because the military is all about strategic reserves and this is not the predisposition of the contemporary supply chain. To your point, I don’t think the military mindset is easily adapted to almost any non-military purpose.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 13, 2013 @ 8:44 am

IMO communication between the private and public sectors is abysmal.

Some investors only invest in the unregulated sectors of private business and some only in the regulated sectors. Regulated and unregulated private sectors are world’s apart IMO!

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 13, 2013 @ 8:45 am

And perhaps the taxed AND untaxed private sectors are also world’s apart! Again IMO!

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 14, 2013 @ 1:02 am

A Brief Overview of Business Types and Their Tax Treatment, June 12, 2013

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 14, 2013 @ 1:03 am

The comment preceding refers to a CRS report!

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Private and Public Cultures: Action

June 27, 2013 @ 5:06 am

[…] between private and public sectors in homeland security.  Prior posts have considered context, concepts, and […]

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