Recently I came into near simultaneous possession of two books. If not for the coincidence of each being in my bag at the same time, the contrast between them would probably not have been noticed.
They are superficially similar. Each has “Disaster” in the title. Each measures 5 1/2 x 8 1/2. One has 193 pages, the other 244 (with an appendix). Both are particularly intended to inform and influence public administration of disasters.
But substantively they are profoundly different and, it occurs to me, reflect deep differences in homeland security (and probably beyond).
One is written by an individual, the other by a committee. One draws heavily on history, as far back as Gilgamesh. The second is aggressively contemporary, including a few statistics from the mid-20th Century but is otherwise very much a product of the last decade. One is global in scope, the other almost entirely focused on the United States.
Given their public administration purposes it is not surprising that both give significant attention to institutional frameworks.
One book offers four key approaches: 1) enhancing institutional flexibility, 2) building an appreciation of risk, 3) understanding disasters and crises as part of our reality, and 4) identifying means to continually invest in infrastructure.
The other book sets out six more detailed — narrow, actionable, prescriptive, presumptuous, [insert your preference here] — recommendations:
- Federal agencies should incorporate national resilience as an organizing principle to inform and guide the mission and actions of the federal government and the programs it supports at all levels.
- The public and private sectors in each community should work cooperatively to encourage commitment to and investment in a risk management strategy that includes complementary structural and nonstructural risk-reduction and risk-spreading measures or tools.
- A national resource of disaster-related data should be established that documents injuries, loss of life, property loss, and impacts on economic activity.
- The Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with other federal agencies, state and local partners, and professional groups, should develop a National Resilience Scorecard.
- Federal, state, and local governments should support the creation and maintenance of broad-based community resilience coalitions at the local and regional levels.
- All federal agencies should promote and coordinate national resilience in their programs and policies. A resilience policy review and self-assessment within agencies, and the establishment of a strong community among agencies, are keys to achieving this kind of coordination.
The contrasting proposals are good clues to the conceptual origins of each book.
It will not surprise any regular reader that I am more personally predisposed to the historically and globally framed text. But even when I disagree, I admire the other effort to move from conceiving possibilities to actual action.
These two efforts could have been complementary. One might have placed our contemporary challenges in context. Serious engagement with deeper context would likely have produced action recommendations more likely to see action. The tactical tendencies of the group-effort would have put more meat on the individual’s frame.
But my purpose is not to critique either book. Each is informative and helpful on its own terms.
It is those terms of self-reference that, perhaps, concern me most. One is mechanistic — at least Newtonian — in its expectations. The other is philosophical. (A colleague recently commented that a publication of mine was “very philosophical”. He was not being complimentary.)
But whether we love wisdom or just lust after its consequence, we need — especially homeland security needs — to somehow better blend policy levers (mechanisms) with social insight (philosophy). Yes, it is possible and often helpful to conceive of individuals and neighborhoods and diverse populations as mathematical objects. But it can also be dangerously reductionist.
I am — perhaps fatally — biased toward the historical and philosophical because of the respect these disciplines have for human failure while (usually) avoiding cynicism regarding human potential. So much of positivist policy development is either Pollyannish or despairing. There is a middle way.
A former Speaker of the House once told me Washington DC is the last refuge of Medieval Nominalists; by which he meant it is a city preoccupied with finding precisely the right words to successfully legislate, regulate, adjudicate, and rule. Words matter. But no set of words, alone, are ever sufficient. Relationships matter more. Working together toward a shared vision even more.
I commend both books to you:
Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative by the Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters, National Academy of Sciences.