Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 20, 2014

A Catastrophic Failure

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Resilience,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 20, 2014

Last Friday I finished about four years of work.  I won’t identify the specific work, but it is homeland security-related.

Mostly I failed.

Yes, progress was made:

  • We have a much better understanding of the problem; among other things we recognize a problem that previously was not widely recognized.
  • We have identified most of the key players who are needed to effectively engage the problem.
  • We have established some meaningful relationships among several of the key players.

But the actual problem is as threatening and complicated as it was four years ago.  Maybe more threatening.

After four years of serious, ongoing, and mostly well-received work, I failed to practically advance our security.

I advocate for a distinction between national security and homeland security. But as a wannabe classicist, I embrace “security” derived from the Latin se-curus, se: free from, cura: care.  If anything, today we are less-carefree than four years ago.

Greater knowledge has, if anything, increased our concern:

  • We now recognize there are substantive differences between catastrophic and non-catastrophic.  Enhanced effectiveness dealing with the non-catastrophic has in some cases increased our catastrophic risk.
  • We now recognize the larger an impact area the more likely a catastrophe, even if the “first impact” is less than catastrophic.
  • We now recognize the more interdependencies (power, transport, fuel, supplies, etc.) the more likely a catastrophe
  • We now recognize that self-made vulnerabilities are at least as important — often more important — than external threats.

These aspects of the strategic landscape may seem obvious to you, but four years ago they were anything but.  Even today these findings are taken by some as fightin’ words.

While we now have a much better view of reality, we have not substantively reduced vulnerabilities. An analogy: The thick flat jungle of Mexico’s Yucatan is periodically punctuated by a rise.  Most of these exclamation marks are the overgrown ruins of ancient Mayan structures.  As the vines and trees are cleared from the stonework the threat of erosion — and trampling by tourists — actually increase the likelihood of collapse.

In clearing our problem’s landscape we have also experienced the cultural differences that complicate potential collaboration between the private and public sectors.

In this particular problem-set the private sector tended to recognize the risk earlier than the public sector.   So unlike some homeland security problems, the private and public sectors are in rough strategic alignment.

But to actually do anything together to mitigate risk has been problematic.  A forensic analysis of the multiple problems is not appropriate for a blog.  But at the highest level I think it is fair to say there has been a persistent disconnect between private and public regarding the fundamentals of time and space.

The dimensions of space important to the private sector are usually determined by markets that extend for hundreds, even thousands of miles in every direction.  One private sector participant said, “For our daily operations states are legal fictions.”  Yet on very bad days those fictional creatures become very real… with both good and bad consequences.

Dimensions of time can be even more complicated.  Everyone is busy. Everyone is mostly focused on meeting the calendar for some specific deliverable or set of deliverables.   Private sector success or failure is measured at least once a day and the measures arrive from multiple  players (dozens to tens-of-thousands) across diverse markets.  The public sector calendar tends to be more extended even while the measures-that-matter emerge from a much smaller set of observers/consumers/commanders.

As the private sector experience of time encounters the public sector experience of time reality can be contorted in weird ways.

Over the last four years I failed to practically accommodate these differences of space and time. I am sure private and public share the same reality.  I am sure they depend on one another.   But as I finish this work they remain trapped at different points on a very Newtonian plane.

–+–

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Albert Einstein, Letter to Robert S. Marcus, February 12, 1950

February 13, 2014

Private-Public Cybersecurity Framework

Filed under: Cybersecurity,Private Sector,Resilience — by Philip J. Palin on February 13, 2014

Wednesday the White House “launched” the long-under-way Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (41-page PDF).   A snow day has given me the chance to read it.

You need to turn to someone else for a technically competent reading-between-the-lines.  I have no particular competence in cyber hermeneutics.

Information Week reports, “Experts believe NIST’s voluntary Cybersecurity Framework will become the de facto standard for litigators and regulators.”

Several others suggest the voluntary standards are a reasonable step forward given the collapse of earlier efforts to draft legislation.  The US Chamber of Commerce continues to be suspicious of how even these kumbaya methods might be turned to satanic purposes.

The White House spin is well-set out in a detailed background briefing.

No one is suggesting the framework, even widely adopted, resolves vulnerabilities innate to the network.

Two aspects of the framework should not be taken for granted.  First, the methods to finalize the framework may be a model for future approaches to private-public problem solving.  The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a non-regulatory agency, played host and facilitator for a largely private-sector-driven process.  NIST did not try to drive the process in any particular direction, but was helpful in brokering practical paths for reaching consensus among sometime competitors and a variety of views.  ”Honest broker” is not the first thing many in the private sector usually attribute to the Feds.  It apparently worked here.

Second, several of the private sector “Big Boys” involved in the process (e.g. AT&T) have announced their intention to use audited compliance with the voluntary standards as a gateway for those enterprises from which they will purchase goods and services.

This tees-up the potential for a dynamic process of community self-enforcement that several studies (including many by my heroine Elinor Ostrom) have found are much more effective at proactive avoidance and prevention of problems, rather than after-the-fact sanctioning.  Given the “commons-like” characteristics of the cyber-domain this could be an important dynamic to consciously cultivate.

January 30, 2014

The mitigation message

East Rivers Elementary

Cobb County elementary school children sleeping Tuesday night in the gym

Last Tuesday my train pulled into Union Station, Washington DC, shortly before noon.  The station and surrounding city were unusually quiet.  The Federal Office of Personnel Management had given most of its employees liberal leave to stay home.   Most area schools followed this lead.

On Capitol Hill — where I still had some meetings — the snow did not really begin until about 2:00 and was not quite as bad as predicted even into the height of the typical rush hour, which given the OPM decision had much more rush than usual.

By the next morning there was nearly 4 inches of snow at Reagan Airport and over 8 at Dulles.  Wednesday got underway with official delays.

Still some were inclined to second-guess the Tuesday mitigation decision made with the best possible information Monday night.

I hope the second-guessers are giving close attention to the more recent news out of Atlanta.

Even at dawn Tuesday, January 28 the best information available to Georgia decision-makers — very much including the general public — was that the worst weather would track south and east of Atlanta.  Beginning between about 7 and 8 that morning the best information began to shift.  By 10 it was snowing in Bartow County on the northwestern edge of metro Atlanta.  By 11 it was snowing hard and icing.  At 11:23 Cobb County Schools (along the Northwest Atlanta beltway) closed and began busing students home.  At 12:15 Georgia DOT suggested private-sector workers head home.

By 1:00 many Atlanta highways were grid-locked, more the result of sudden volume than — yet — because of the weather.  (Should bring back unpleasant memories of similar events in Chicago and DC in recent years.)  As some of you know, traffic is not an unusual problem in Atlanta, even in fragrant and sunny springtime.

At 1:55 the Governor declared a State of Emergency; the most immediate effect being to pour state employees onto already packed roads.  Across the United States we are predisposed to evacuations.  It is a bad — sometimes, someplaces deadly — habit.

By mid-afternoon the snow and especially ice were adding to the problems.  You have probably seen the videos.  There were several hundred vehicle accidents just in the Atlanta area.

On Wednesday many Tuesday afternoon commuters were still stuck in their cars.  Some had abandoned their vehicles.  In several cases school buses were forced to retreat back to classrooms.  Several hundred children — the numbers are still unclear — spent the night in their schools. (See picture above.) My ten-year-old nephew got home from school, but neither of his parents could.  Shane spent the night at the neighbors.

There will be after-action analyses. There will be studies.  There will be hearings.  There will be blame-gaming. There will be lessons-learned.

What I hope someone will declare clearly and well is that 1) there are many things we cannot accurately predict, 2) especially in unpredictable contexts innate vulnerabilities are exposed, and 3) in densely networked environments, like cities, these vulnerabilities can sometimes meet and mate, propagating suddenly and prolifically.

So… for a whole host of risks we are wise to invest in mitigation and to keep in mind that what will always seem an over-investment before will likely pay profitable dividends after.

This principle applies well beyond the weather, including water systems, supply chains, fuel networks, bridges, and much, much more.

January 14, 2014

Private-public collaboration essential to water restoration effort

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With the active, coordinated, nearly  synchronous involvement of neighborhoods and individuals across the region the Kanawha Valley is currently engaged in a process of flushing and restoring a 1700-mile water network.  A continually updated map is available here.

This is an amazing example of “whole community” in action.

December 12, 2013

Five surveillance principles proposed

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Privacy and Security,Private Sector — by Philip J. Palin on December 12, 2013

Several leading technology companies have called on world governments — and especially the US government — to abide by five principles when engaging in information surveillance:

1.  Limiting Governments’ Authority to Collect Users’ Information

Governments should codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data that balance their need for the data in limited circumstances, users’ reasonable privacy interests, and the impact on trust in the Internet. In addition, governments should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.

2. Oversight and Accountability

Intelligence agencies seeking to collect or compel the production of information should do so under a clear legal framework in which executive powers are subject to strong checks and balances. Reviewing courts should be independent and include an adversarial process, and governments should allow important rulings of law to be made public in a timely manner so that the courts are accountable to an informed citizenry.

3.  Transparency About Government Demands

Transparency is essential to a debate over governments’ surveillance powers and the scope of programs that are administered under those powers. Governments should allow companies to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information. In addition, governments should also promptly disclose this data publicly.

4. Respecting the Free Flow of Information

The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st century global economy. Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country. Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.

5.  Avoiding Conflicts Among Governments

In order to avoid conflicting laws, there should be a robust, principled, and transparent framework to govern lawful requests for data across jurisdictions, such as improved mutual legal assistance treaty — or “MLAT” — processes. Where the laws of one jurisdiction conflict with the laws of another, it is incumbent upon governments to work together to resolve the conflict.

More background on this initiative and the guidelines can be found at reformgovernmentsurveillance.com

Eric Snowden’s exposure of National Security Agency practice has reminded me of a now quarter-century old critique of US intelligence practices by a British pal.  He commented that even the old rifle versus shotgun analogy did not capture the difference between US intelligence gathering and behavior by other spy agencies. “A shot-gun still requires some rough targeting.  US intelligence is more like a gas attack, wafting wherever the wind blows.”

My British colleague explained the difference as a matter of resources and especially budget.  ”We have to choose our targets carefully.  The US has the money, men, and machines to spend billions on blind alleys.”

In this new century we have women and even better machines.  The so-called “black budget” also found in the Snowden leaks suggests the NSA spends about $10.5 billion per year, roughly 20 percent of the overall federal intelligence budget.  The British government spends about $3.2 billion on its overall intelligence operations.

–+–

I look forward to a great future for America – a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. (John F. Kennedy)

November 14, 2013

Healing our addiction to control

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Recovery,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 14, 2013

Logistics hubs

The area shown above is a roughly 50,000 square mile region featuring six major and many smaller islands.  The region’s total population is about 11.2 million.

The typhoon made landfall in eastern Samar province early Friday morning November 8. With sustained winds of 195 miles-per-hour and wind gusts of up to 235 mph, the cyclone tore west across the nation of islands for the next twelve hours.

There had been preparations and in many areas evacuations.  But given the cyclone’s reach and Philippine geography one might run but not hide from a storm this size.

The number of casualties is not yet clear. The fate of survivors is clear enough. Tomoo Hozumi, the Philippines’ UNICEF representative, told CNN food, shelter, clean water and basic sanitation are “in a severe shortage, the situation on the ground is hideous.”

The dead have not been buried. Toxic detritus has been splashed across the wrecked landscape. Human waste is accumulating. Simple cuts become life-threatening due to infection and lack of medicine.

More than 11 million people are affected. More than a half-million have been displaced. Up to 2.5 million are in imminent danger due to lack of human essentials.  “Maslow’s pyramid has collapsed,” one Filipino said.

Delivering supplies is the preeminent challenge. As it was in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2010 Haitian earthquake, and 2011 Great Tohoku earthquake. We will see these challenges in the United States following a CAT-5 hurricane or 8-plus earthquake pummeling a dense urban area.

On Tuesday night, nearly five days after landfall, the Philippine national government outlined a “master plan” for supplying the expansive impact area roughly the size of Louisiana. Based on an interview with Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, here’s an overview from the Manila Bulletin:

“This will come out to be one of the largest logistic and relief operations that the Philippine government has ever done in history and the President wanted to make sure that we have aligned everything,” he added.

“There has never been anything at the magnitude of what we are trying to do now—not in size, not in volume, not in even the breadth of it,” he added.

Under the relief plan, Almendras said the government will set up a special processing center in Cebu that will integrate the flow of all relief assistance. From Cebu, the relief goods will be distributed to the typhoon-hit places.

He said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) will also establish additional repacking centers of relief goods, including in Ormoc, Cagayan de Oro and Davao.

He said the government is moving the relief goods to Tacloban City by air, land, and sea transportation. C-130 planes are doing sunrise to sunset operations to bring relief goods to the disaster-hit areas.

He added that Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya has been designated “transportation guru” to ensure relief goods are moved as fast as possible.

On questions why the goods are not reaching some victims, Almendra said: “That’s really a local issue that we are trying to address now.”

The last — unanswered — paragraph is the crucial concern.  Establishing logistical hubs is certainly a challenge. They may be needed, I don’t know the status of preexisting hubs.  But hubs exist to serve spokes and move energy to the treads. Spokes and treads are how commodities become supplies that survivors actually consume.

In its November 13 situation update the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) emphasizes, “Trucks and fuel are urgently needed to deliver aid. Debris and logistics continue to severely constrain the delivery of humanitarian assistance.” In the same report OCHA estimates that to date about 250,000 survivors have received food assistance (of the 2.5 million noted above).

There have been some — surprising — lessons learned from prior catastrophes.  After the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear emergency Japanese Self Defense Forces spent at least five days trying to self-create sufficient capacity to serve hundreds-of-thousands of survivors. There was never close to enough. Only after the perimeters came down, fuel was available and commercial resources were reengaged did supplies begin to meet demand.   The convenience store sector in Japan became a major engine of localized response and recovery.

A friend who was on the ground soon after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti says, “Really effective distribution did not take hold until street vendors opened a so-called black market for relief supplies.  Our initial reaction was moral outrage. Our second and very quiet reaction was gratitude.  In a couple of days the street vendors achieved a level of distribution that was far beyond the capability of the international and NGO communities.”

Since their 2011 experience the Japanese have given unprecedented attention to pre-planning and collaboration with the private sector. (There is even a — controversial — proposal to use private sector transportation for  non-disaster-related military missions.)  The emergency-response strategy is now more focused on restoring instead of replacing private sector supply streams.

In both Japan and Haiti — and now the Philippines — the strategic issue might be framed as, “How do you make complexity your friend?”

Some partial, situation-specific answers:  Clear debris, open roadways, restore or replace bridges, do not divert fuel from the commercial economy, keep perimeters reasonably permeable, compensate the private sector (even black-marketeers) to distribute at no-charge what they had previously sold, cherish and support truckers and trucks (especially small trucks), provide security as needed with convoys or otherwise. As much as possible, use whatever relationships, networks, systems, capacities, and capabilities facilitated distribution prior to the crisis. Encourage creative local — even random — adaptation.

I don’t know the Philippines well-enough to be confident of the right answers there and now. I do recognize in the government’s “master plan” familiar strategies that have proven ineffective in previous catastrophic situations.

The front-page of the November 14 Manila Bulletin includes this headline: Despair, chaos grip Tacloban: Survivors Hope To Escape Apocalypse

–+–

The “serenity prayer” is, perhaps, most associated with Alcoholics Anonymous:

Give me grace to accept the
things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

We might adopt it for catastrophe preparedness, response and recovery.

July 25, 2013

A missing link in strategy?

Earlier this week I was re-reading the DHS Strategic Plan (2012-2016).  I perceived something — actually its absence —  I had not noticed before.

Community involvement is, of course, a recurring mantra in the Strategic Plan and many other DHS policy, strategy, and operational documents. “Whole Community” is prominent in Mission 5: Ensuring Resilience to Disaster.  Other missions include similar language.  For example Mission 1: Preventing Terrorism and Enhancing Security has a goal to “Increase community participation in efforts to deter terrorists and other malicious actors and mitigate radicalization toward violence.”

A close reading of the Strategic Plan suggests the whole is made up of the following parts:

Individual
Family
Household
Neighborhood
Community
Private and Non-Profit Sectors
Faith Based organizations
Localities
States
Tribes
Federal Partners
Nation
All Segments of Society

Especially with those catch-all terms it’s not that my “absence” is excluded.  But it is not given explicit attention.  Certainly not priority.

What prominent place in the life of most Americans is not referenced?

The workplace.

Indirectly this is part of the private sector or non-profit-sector or local and state government or whatever other sector in which you work. But these “sectors” are abstractions. The workplace is a concrete — often literally glass, steel, and concrete — place. Yet the only time “workplace” is referenced in the Strategic Plan is with workplace standards for protecting intellectual property and “workplace wellness” programs for DHS employees.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Americans age 25-to-54 spend an average of 8.8 hours per day at work. This is a larger block than any other activity, much larger than any other non-sleeping activity surveyed.

Yet the places where we work are not regularly conceived or engaged as venues where homeland security priorities can be pursued.

There are exceptions. I am aware of a few.  I welcome you highlighting successful exceptions in the comments.

The absence of the workplace from the DHS Strategy reveals a strategic perspective.  It is another example of the disconnect between private and public domains.  Clearly government is a place where homeland security is to be practiced.  There is considerable effort to engage neighborhoods and sometimes schools. These are real places too, but much more public than private in their character.

Is a “community” — whole or not — a real place?  It depends, in my experience, on the community and how an outsider approaches the putative community.

There are offices, distribution centers, power plants, factories and refineries, restaurants, hotels, retail stores and many more real places where each day the vast majority of Americans spend the majority of their waking hours.  Most of these places feature a task-oriented culture with management processes already in place.  Most of these places are self-interested in a reasonable level of safety, continuity, and resilience.

In my personal experience most of these places are wonderful contexts for the practical practice of homeland security.

There is a tendency for modern strategic thinking to be more comfortable with space than place.  See battlespace and cyberspace, even Space Command.  I am often an advocate for differentiating between Theater Command and Incident Command and perceive we give too little attention to the Big Picture.  But it is not, of course, one or the other: it is a continuum.

Real risks, threats, vulnerabilities and consequences usually unfold in real places where people come and go everyday.

Interesting what you can miss even when it’s right in front of you.  I’ve read that strategy a half-dozen times.  Wonder what else is hiding in plain sight?

June 27, 2013

Private and Public Cultures: Action

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 27, 2013

This is — depending on your responses — probably the last in a short series of posts on perceived tensions between private and public sectors in homeland security.  Prior posts have considered context, concepts, and communications.

–+–

In the June Harvard Business Review a three-piece collection focuses on “strategy for turbulent times”.  HBR authors aspire to be evidence-based and action-oriented.  This usually results in story-supported assertions with to-do or not-to-do lists.

In “Transient Advantage” Rita Gunther McGrath argues we now live “in a world where a competitive advantage often evaporates in less than a year [and] companies can’t afford spending months at a time crafting a single long-term strategy”.  After a couple of stories she lists seven dangerous misconceptions and offers paragraph-long explanations for “eight major shifts” in the ways companies need to operate.

If you are a public servant can you translate any four of these into near-term action in your agency… without risking jail-time or, at least, very stern comments by the Comptroller General?

1.  Think about arenas, not industries.  ”An arena is a combination of a customer segment, an offer, and place in which that offer is delivered.”

2. Set broad themes, and then let people experiment.  Is that what happened in the Cincinnati IRS office?

3.  Adopt metrics that support entrepreneurial growth.  The author quotes a business executive who advocates, “fall in love with the problem you are trying to solve.”  I have not seen that metric referenced in any GAO publication.

4.  Focus on experiences and solutions to problems.  Okay, that’s a gimme.

5.  Build strong relationships and networks.  Two gimmes.  But accepting is different than adopting which is entirely different from practicing.

6.  Avoid brutal restructuring: learn healthy disengagement.  And how do you explain this to the oversight committee(s)?

7.  Get systematic about early-stage innovation.   When Poindexter et al attempted to do this publicly with Total Information Awareness the NSA learned (see number 8) to do essentially the same thing behind closed doors.  See where that got us.

8. Experiment, iterate, learn.  What do you suppose TSA has learned from its experiment in changing the rules related to onboard knives and related?  It might have learned something about number 5.  But instead I expect it mostly learned that number 7 involves pain.

The private sector organizations I know have been talking about these shifts for the last quarter-century or more.  Some are making the shifts.  A few live in fifth-gear.  Almost everyone dreams of the two-door top-down wind-in-the-hair shift-into-fifth.

Most public sector organizations I have encountered dream about a Prius (or more politically-and-patriotically correct, a Ford Fusion Hybrid SE) or a very large truck of some sort. All go… but the destination, route, and experience tend to be dissimilar.

The private sector celebrates, mythologizes — essentially worships — action.  What can we do?  Now?  Just do it.  As is often the case believers fall short, sin, and are hypocritical.  But almost everyone can also tell a powerful story of redemption.

My private sector patron saint has been Peter Drucker who claimed innovation and sales are the only sources of value.  Everything else is a cost… and costs, like sin, are to be minimized.

Innovation and sales emerge from the crucible of creativity and customers.  The entrepreneur perceives a need that becomes an opportunity.  The entrepreneurial enterprise probes the desires and deficiencies of the market through which a compelling experience and a persuasive solution emerge (see number 4).  Rapid, continuing, and (if successful) increasingly crowded customer feedback informs creative adaptation and an idea becomes reality. Hallelujah.

I have known public sector enterprises that share similar beliefs and behavior.  Hospitals and water systems are among the most action-oriented.

There is also an — obvious — action-bias among police and firefighters.  But in my experience there is an important distinction with broad implications.

In the private sector, and a segment of the public sector, action is targeted to stimulate or facilitate specific actions by others.  Among enforcement agencies action is (mostly) aimed at stopping or controlling specific actions by others.   Many public sector agencies — especially homeland security agencies — are organized to stop undesirable behavior rather than start or serve desirable behavior.  Feedback comes much more slowly, more hierarchically, and is often reported as a reduction — as opposed to growth — in key indicators.

A stop-it culture is not much like a start-up culture.

I spent most of my career in a series of start-ups.  I soon learned to keep lawyers, accountants, and most academics away from the creative process until the enterprise was generating some sort of market-based results.  The critical-thinkers — as opposed to creative-thinkers — were important contributors to refining promising products; but they very seldom saw the need for anything beyond fourth gear and third was fine most of the time.  Government lawyers and accountants seem especially talented in this regard (apologies Bill).

None of this is meant to suggest one culture is innately superior to the other.  Personally I feel more comfortable in the private sector.  But that is an aesthetic rather than an ethical or existential judgment.  Each culture, at its best, is well-adapted to its particular context and purposes.  The two cultures need each other if those who depend on both are to be well-served and if each is to flourish.  In the homeland security domain both cultures are in any case persistently present.

If a stop-it guy and a start-up gal were tagged for a blind date would opposites attract or deflect?  It depends on the self-awareness and sense of humor of each.  If either or both tend toward self-righteousness, watch out for yelling or someone walking out in a huff or no real conversation and no second date.

But we often reserve our greatest affection for that which is mysterious to us (see number 3).  Engineers call this tension, poets may prefer frisson.  It keeps opposites positively engaged. Whatever we call it, homeland security needs to cultivate it in our private-public relationships.

June 20, 2013

Private and Public Cultures: Communicating

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 20, 2013

Two weeks ago I started thinking-out loud regarding the sometime tension between public and private cultures, especially related to homeland security.  I suggested the two sectors are divided by contrasting perceptions of context.   Given the difference in context, it is not surprising two very different concepts of operations emerge. Last week I gave specific examples related to planning.

This week I look at communications.   The differences here are especially profound, but as far as I can determine have nothing to do with my context-and-concept framework.  Today no theoretical notions, just observational reports.  If you have a hypothesis that explains the differences, please let us know.

–+–

Scheduling, Size, and Agenda

If I am doing private sector meetings in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco I begin setting up the schedule four to six weeks before.  I can usually do three or four meetings a day. Typically I exchange notes on agenda and key questions or purposes about two weeks prior.    The most important meetings are usually a working lunch or dinner.  These are set aside for two-hours plus and are conceived as encouraging non-linear conversations.  The vast majority of meetings are one-on-one or, perhaps, four or five altogether.  Early in my private sector career I was instructed to seriously discount the potential of any meeting involving more than seven people (myself included).

If I am doing public sector meetings — especially in Washington DC — it is risky to set up more than one in the morning and another in the afternoon.  It is not unusual for me to make an appointment and have it shifted two or three times on the scheduled day.  It is typical to make a meeting with one person and for a team of twelve to show up.  Eating together is seldom involved, but it is a signal of unusual intimacy.   Most of the public sector meetings to which I am invited have also invited dozens of others, but often less than a dozen show up.  More –sometimes many more — are on the phone (teleconferences are less common, involve smaller numbers, and are generally less interactive in the private sector). I almost always have an agenda in my mind, but I have learned that being explicit is seldom helpful and often hurtful.  Many of my most productive public sector meetings are totally spontaneous pop-ups.

Participation and Purposes

A private sector meeting usually begins with either a problem or a purpose (hence the prior discussion of agenda).  Some sort of previously prepared product is presented that either defines the problem/purpose or purports to solve/advance the problem/purpose.  Questions are asked.  Criticisms are offered.  Answers and explanations are attempted.  There is a conversation, often facilitated by the most senior person or an outside consultant. Adjustments in the original product are made.  Action steps are assigned. Who is assigned what is especially important.  What is the A Team assigned?  What is given the soon-to-retire guy and why? This signals the real priority associated with the product.  Some sort of follow-on measure or meeting or such is targeted.   Someone almost always follows up immediately in writing with what the meeting covered and decided. Who sends the follow-up and the proportion of CYA to advance-the-plow is significant. Corrections or “clarifications” to the follow-up can become very complicated. The product may be badly conceived.  The conversation can be stilted and non-productive.  The action assigned may be anemic and have the half-life of a May Fly, but this is a regularly repeating pattern.

A public sector meeting usually begins late, almost always ten minutes late.  It is not unusual to have a significant number of participants showing up thirty minutes late.   The meeting is often designed to generate a big piece of a product and it may be designed and constructed in the open meeting.  Positions are staked out. Pennsylvania is interested in X. HHS is insistent on Y.  Red Cross won’t play unless ABC is assured.  The product is accordingly adjusted, sometimes on a big screen in front of everyone.   Questions may be asked.  I have seen effective questioners transform meetings and products.  But when questions are answered it is much more reminiscent of a thesis-defense than a dinner conversation. Another version of the product is distributed claiming to reflect the meeting outcomes.  Sometimes it does, often by padding the product and making it even more unwieldy and unreadable, occasionally in an integrative way.  But in any case, the authors can claim to have consulted key stakeholders and peers.

In the private sector “products” — as used above — are usually a collection of research, production, organizational, and/or marketing actions.   In the public sector products are as often written documents of some sort.

Rhetoric

Private sector meetings are more and more informal.  This trend has been especially pronounced over the last ten years.  Casual Fridays have overtaken the whole week.  The discussion ranges from family to a couple of cells on the spreadsheets to purposeful (very short) stories.  There is — in many, though not all, private sector settings — a deep bias toward “blending.”  Private and professional are blended.  Numbers and narrative are blended.  Everyone is expected to contribute to the conversation in a balanced happily blended way. Courtesy counts. Cool counts.  Generation Y has a serious claim on the culture.

There is — at least to my taste — a persistently paramilitary flavor to most  public sector meetings.  Many more ties are worn in the public sector.  Many more PowerPoints are shown.  There are many more formal presentations and “official” interventions.  The size difference between private and public meetings, noted above, probably has a considerable influence.  Command Presence counts. Baby boomers continue to define the culture.

When these two cultures come together the rhetorical results can be dramatic, especially when there is numerical parity.  Private sector conversations seem off-point or ill-informed or glib to many in the public sector.  Public sector interventions seem long, defensive, and bossy to many in the private sector.

At a private-public session a few months ago a senior government official attempted to direct the discussion by asserting his (and his organization’s) greater knowledge of the situation.  It was an extended comment punctuated with just a tad of table-pounding.  It was followed by uncomfortable silence.  I was trying to conceive a follow-on question that might open up some shared space.

A younger private sector guy broke the silence with, “I don’t believe you.  You may be absolutely right, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t believe you.”  The following is a paraphrase, “I don’t believe you because you are claiming more knowledge of your world than I have of my world.  You are claiming to have more control of the world than I believe is possible.  And you are speaking to me as if I was a child.”

I wish it was possible to report that this was an epiphany that unlocked greater understanding on both sides.  Instead it seemed to deepen the chasm.

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.

June 6, 2013

Public and Private Cultures: Context, concepts, communication, action

Filed under: Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 6, 2013

I recently completed a homeland security project with a significant private-public element.  I have begun the assessment process and intend to include a personal note on the issue of “cultural tensions” between the private and public sector.

Following is the first of an expected three or fours posts where I am trying to think through my impressions.  There are empirical findings, but the data can reasonably be interpreted in a variety of ways.  We are left with analysis or interpretation or persuasion.  I would very much value your feedback.  What seems sound and what sounds wrong?  Given your own experience of private-public engagements, what are your questions or alternative answers?

Clearly this is radically reductionist.  At best this is an effort to identify some helpful heuristics.  At worst — well, heuristics are always double-edged.

–+–

Perceived Context as a Source of Cultural Differentiation

I am the son and grandson of grocers.  Over the last three decades I have not been employed by an organization I did not create or co-create.  I have worked with various public sector entities and have been compensated for this work, but I have never been employed by the public sector.

I have never been employed by a large organization of any sort.  I have been a consultant to large organizations, but my professional home has typically been an enterprise of 10-to-40 persons.  Very early in my career I was part of a  global consulting firm of a few thousand, but we were organized in mostly independent small offices and teams.  It was a much looser arrangement than I encountered among our Fortune-100 client-base.

I share this personal background because it no doubt influences the following findings.  As my Dad often says, “We are who we are because of where we were when.”  Our understanding of context influences every other understanding.

Fundamental to private sector context is failure: competitors fail, customers fail, colleagues fail.  Start-ups fail.  Market-dominating firms are killed off in a couple of CEO-cycles.  I have mostly failed.  Even when the organizations I have created have continued they have never achieved what those present at the beginning envisioned.

Private sector culture anticipates failure.  Hitting 300 is very good, especially if you are regularly up to bat, even more if you can hit when the bases are loaded.   Knowing that failure is likely you look for back-up opportunities, maintain exit plans, and cultivate an ecology of opportunity.  Many private sector enterprises use failure much as an organic farmer uses waste to fertilize the next generation of crops.

This is because the U.S. private sector is heavily oriented toward growth.  Good growth from a minority of successful initiatives will more than cover the losses generated by failures… especially failures that are brought to an early demise.  Know when to hold them and when to fold them.  Walking away from failure at the right time — and learning from the failure — is a key characteristic of the most resilient private sector enterprises.

As an outsider looking in on the public sector I do not perceive this creative anticipation of failure plays a similar role.  Rather, avoiding failure seems a regular characteristic of public sector clients and colleagues.

This may be related to a lack of growth opportunities within the public sector.   In an essentially static resource context failure is seen as waste rather than exploration or innovation or investment.

There is at least as much diversity within the private sector and public sector as between them.  The US Coast Guard and the Navy Chaplain Corps are among the most entrepreneurial of organizations I have had the pleasure to encounter.  Education and training organizations are — weirdly — often the most bureaucratic regardless of their private or public status.  I have watched up-close as proud private sector brands have stubbornly avoided taking reasonable — much less market bending — risks.

But as a general rule, public sector organizations are loathe to fail.  In some cases it is precisely the prospect of imminent failure that generates “growth” opportunities for the public sector.  Just when the private sector would probably be walking away is when the public sector is tempted to double-down to ensure success — or at least avoid failure.  The public sector too often succumbs to this temptation.

The temptation to avoid-failure-at-all-cost is reinforced by the way public sector failure is framed (in a couple of meanings of the word) by the media and elected officials.  There is a cult of personal accountability that practices a cruel liturgy of public humiliation.

For the private sector failure can also come with considerable personal costs, but it is balanced with upside possibilities.  In the public sector the outcomes of failure are heavily weighted toward all-costs and almost no incentive. Culturally the private sector has mythologized reality as a space/time where possibilities abound, failure is temporary, and the universe is expanding.  The mythology of the public sector is much more a matter of light and dark, success or failure, and the universe is static.

–+–

Next week — maybe — the operational concepts that emerge from these alternative contexts.

May 2, 2013

Catastrophe: Should’a, Would’a, Could’a

“I should prefer Mozart. Mostly I listen to 70s hits.”

“I should eat a hot breakfast, but usually have a powerbar instead.”

“I should work-out three or four times a week, maybe I walk around the block twice.”

Should has become moralistic.  It is typically used as a kind of anti-verb, ascribing — often anticipating — non-action.

I have heard a lot of “shoulds” in regard to the explosion of the West, Texas fertilizer storage facility. The April 17 blast killed 14 and injured more than 190 in the town of 2700.

“We should regulate better.”

“We should put buffer zones in place.”

“We should be more realistic about the threat.”

“We should do a better job sharing what we know about the risk.”

“We should focus more on pre-event prevention and mitigation.”

More plural pronouns than singulars it seems.

According to a November 2012 analysis undertaken by the Congressional Research Service, 6,985 chemical facilities self-report they pose a risk to populations greater than 1,000. There are 90 that self-report a worst-case risk affecting up to 1 million people.

The West facility was not included in the CRS analysis.  They did not self-report — or evidently self-conceive — a worst case scenario that would seriously harm anyone.

As regular readers know I have for a few years worked on catastrophe preparedness.

One of the most remarkable — and absolutely predictable — aspects of this gig is the readiness — preference really — by nearly everyone to define catastrophe as something non-catastrophic.  I saw it again last week and this.  It extends across the public-private divide and every level of government.  When a few of us argue otherwise we are being pedantic, unrealistic, and wasting people’s time.

We should give regular time and energy — maybe five percent of overall effort — to truly catastrophic risks: Global pandemic, significant earthquakes and cyclonic events hitting major urban areas, sustained collapse of the electrical grid whatever the cause. Each of these could have far-reaching secondary and tertiary effects.  In some regions I would include wildfire and flooding. If you have a chemical storage or processing facility nearby that is absolutely worth worst-case thinking now not later.

In many cases the most important issues relate to the mitigation of systemic vulnerabilities that are threat-agnostic.  ”Fixing” vulnerabilities can reduce consequences for a whole host of threats, including non-catastrophic threats.

USA Today editorialized, “The Boston Marathon bombings overshadowed the disaster in Texas, but what happened in West was deadlier, and preventing the next fertilizer accident should command serious attention.”

There’s that anti-verb again.

–+–

And how I wish I’d, wish I’d thought a little bit more
Now shoulda, woulda, coulda I means I’m out of time
Shoulda, woulda, coulda can’t change your mind
And I wonder, wonder what I’m going to do
Shoulda, woulda coulda are the last words of a fool

Can’t change your mind
Can’t change your mind

Beverly Knight

March 6, 2013

Our secular Trinity: supply chain, critical infrastructure, and cyber security

Filed under: Cybersecurity,Infrastructure Protection,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 6, 2013

Above from the conclusion to Zorba the Greek, please don’t watch and listen until reading post, then it might make some sense.

–+–

Late Tuesday a third key component in an emerging national strategic architecture was highlighted on the White House website.  The Implementation Update for the National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security outlines progress made (and if you read carefully between the lines, problems experienced) over the last twelve months since the Strategy itself was released.

This update — and the original National Strategy — should be read along side Presidential Policy Directive: Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience (February 12, 2013) and the Executive Order: Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (February 12, 2013).

Together these documents frame a new Trinitarian order: three distinct strategies of one substance, essence, and nature. Trade depends on production, transport of goods and communication of demand.   We can also say economic vitality depends on these factors.  Often  life itself depends on these mysteriously mutual movements.

The Supply Chain is a particular manifestation of the mystery that benefits from specific attention.   Most minds will not immediately apprehend the wholeness of  cyber, critical infrastructure and supply chains.   A purposeful focus can help. But the Implementation Update is explicit regarding the connections and — much more than connections — the interdependence and indivisibility of the Strategic Trinity:

Priority actions include… building resilient critical infrastructures by creating new incentives… to encourage industry stakeholders to build resilience into their supply chains, which then strengthens  the system overall; mapping the interdependencies among the supply chains of the various critical infrastructure sectors (such as energy, cyber, and transportation); and creating common resilience metrics and standards for worldwide use and implementation.

There are, however, heretics.  Personally I tend toward a Unitarian perspective.   Others insist on the primacy of Cyber or of Critical Infrastructure. Some others recognize the relationship of Cyber and Critical Infrastructure but dismiss equal attention being given to Supply Chain. There are also “Pentecostals”, especially among the private sector laity, who celebrate Supply Chain almost to the exclusion of the other aspects of the Trinity.  I might extend the analogy to principles of Judaism, Islam, and other worldviews.  I won’t. (Can I hear a loud Amen?)

If this theological analogy is not to your taste,  then read the three policy documents along side a fourth gospel: Alfred Thayer Mahan’s  The Influence of Seapower Upon History.  Admiral Mahan wrote:

In these three things—production (with the necessity of exchanging products) shipping (whereby the exchange is carried on) and colonies (which facilitate and enlarge the operations of shipping and tend to protect it by multiplying points of safety)—is to be found the key to much of the history, as well as of the policy, of nations…

The functional benefits of colonies have been superseded by the signaling capabilities of multinational corporations, global exchanges and transnational communication, but the Trinitarian structure persists. Mahan called the Sea the “great common” from which and through which “men may pass in all directions, but on which some well-worn paths show that controlling reasons have led them to choose certain lines of travel rather than others.”

Around these lines of travel, civilization is constructed, information is exchanged, and trade is conducted.   A bridge (critical infrastructure) may determine the direction of trade (supply chain), but the information and money exchanged (cyber) in the village beside the bridge may send supply in previously unexpected directions.   Today the bridge may be a digital link, the village an electronic exchange, and the product an elusive formula for the next new wonder drug.  But still the three must work together.  Corruption or collapse of one aspect will unravel the other two.

Our secular trinity is not eternal. There are ongoing sources of corruption.  There are prior examples of collapse.

I was involved in some of the activities and consultations noted in the Implementation Update.   Some personal impressions:  Many government personnel are predisposed to control.  Many in the private sector have a deep desire for clarity.  Each tendency is understandable.  Each tendency is a potentially profound source of dysfunction.   I know this is not exactly a surprise.

But… the desire for clarity can easily become reductionist, even atomist.  Imposing such radical clarification leads to a kind of analytical surrealism.   Some “lean” supply chains are absolutely anorexic.    The desire for control is justified by (sometimes self-generated) complication.  The more complicated the context, the more — it is said — that control is needed.   The more the laity seeks to deny complexity, the more the priests justify the need for their control.   Both tendencies miss the mark. (Sin in Hebrew is chattath, from the root chatta, the Greek equivalent is hamartia. All these words mean to miss the mark.)  The purpose of our secular Trinity is to hit the mark when, where, and with what is wanted.

There is at least one explanation  of the sacred Trinity relevant to our secular version.  John of Damascus characterized the Trinity as a perichoresis — literally a “dance around” — where, as in a Greek folk dance, distinct lines of dancers (e.g. men, women, and children) each display their own steps and flourishes, but are clearly engaging the same rhythm,  maintain their own identity even as each line dissolves into the others… in common becoming The Dance.

Rather than obsessive control or absolute clarity, the Trinity is a shared dance.  We need to learn to dance together.

Just getting private and public to hear the same music would be a good start.

February 21, 2013

No three hour cruise

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection,Port and Maritime Security,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector — by Philip J. Palin on February 21, 2013

We are all aboard the Carnival Triumph.  That’s the cruise ship stranded at sea starting on February 10.  Our comfort and survival rest on interdependent systems most do not understand; and some systems many  actively avoid thinking about.

Usually the systems work well. But recently there has been a rash of cascading failures: Carnival Splendor,  Costa Allegra, and Azamara Quest.  The capsizing of the Costa Concordia is a different category, but not not irrelevant.  In the wider world of cascading failures other labels are applied:  Tohoku, Haiti, Lehman Brothers…

According to CNN:

“We know that the fire originated in front of a generator,” Patrick Cuty, a senior marine investigator for the U.S. Coast Guard, told CNN on Sunday (February 17)….  It appears that the fire suppression worked as designed, Cuty said Friday (February 15). The engineer who was on watch around dawn February 10 saw the fire ignite over a video feed and immediately notified the bridge, Cuty said. Based on an inspection of the engine room Thursday, Cuty said the fire did not appear to have been large.

On Monday afternoon February 18, the Associated Press reported, “A Coast Guard official says the cause of the engine-room fire on the Carnival cruise ship Triumph was a leak in a fuel oil return line.”

According to the New York Times:

The passengers had left the Port of Galveston in Texas on Thursday (February 7) for what was to be a four-day cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. They ended up sleeping for five days on sewage-soaked carpets and open decks, with food so limited that they were reduced to eating candy and ketchup on buns. “It’s like being locked in a Porta Potty for days,” said Peter Cass, a physician from Beaumont, Tex., as the ship crept closer to Mobile on Thursday. “We’ve lived through two hurricanes, and this is worse.”

I had hoped by now there might be more public detail on confirmed cause-and-effects.  I can’t find what I consider fully credible information.  But since I am just a blogger — and mostly want to argue an analogy — here’s a rough summary of what I understand:

  • A comparatively small fire — probably accidental in origin — was quickly extinguished.
  • But as a consequence water pumping, air conditioning, propulsion and ship stabilizers were all disabled. The Triumph was left “dead in the water.”
  • The crew was wonderful, according to many.  Most of the passengers were cooperative, collaborative, and creative under stress.
  • But living conditions quickly turned from luxurious to life-threatening.  The second of what will surely be many lawsuits, claims that passengers were “exposed to extremely toxic and debilitating conditions resulting in severe and permanent injuries.”
  • The response, both official and unofficial, was “effective”. No one died. The ship will cruise again.

Toxicity was mostly a matter of ongoing exposure to untreated human waste.  With over 4200 humans in close quarters pitching this way and that, human hygiene was seriously challenged.

This was also a problem at the New Orleans Superdome following Katrina.  This is at the core of the cholera epidemic in Haiti.  It was an issue in several New York high rises for weeks after Sandy.  In the aftermath of any sustained loss of power, pumping, or water, sewage system failure is a secondary — or sometimes tertiary — consequence that can quickly overwhelm densely populated places.

Water is often treated as yet another critical infrastructure.  Water pumping, storage, distribution, and treatment systems are among our most ancient human infrastructures.  But the water system is not just a contributing function, it is also a key supply: for hydration, fire suppression, and hygiene.   We can survive with no electricity, without fuel, and — for a considerable period — even without food.  But lack of water — or the persistent presence of wastewater — can very quickly overwhelm every other human capacity.

I almost headlined this post “Sh*t Happens”.   I am still my mother’s child so I hide it in the final paragraph (raising a multitude of issues related to hypocrisy, passive-aggressive tendencies, and various pseudo-Freudian totems).  But, indeed it does happen, both literally and figuratively, even as we pay our fare and blithely expect a three hour cruise.

February 6, 2013

It was smooth until it wasn’t

Filed under: Catastrophes,Infrastructure Protection,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on February 6, 2013

In reporting on the Superbowl blackout a CBS News correspondent commented, “It was smooth until it wasn’t.”  Which echoes Craig Fugate’s comment, “Our system works really well until it doesn’t.”

Rational, reductionist, predictive, risk-informed, well-tested — and almost always effective — many of our most important modern systems hum along until suddenly they don’t.

From a Tuesday morning front page story in the Times-Picayune:

It’s still unclear exactly what went wrong Sunday. Entergy officials said they are working with the company that built the electrical switchgear, which controls the flow of electricity from the power company to the stadium, to determine if that is to blame.

The equipment, added as part of the upgrades, automatically shuts down when a problem is detected, such as a surge or loss of electricity, potentially signaling — and protecting — against a more protracted power outage.

Ultimately, the equipment worked as it was supposed to. But what caused it to trip Sunday is the central mystery officials are now trying to unravel.

Doug Thornton, senior vice president of SMG, which manages the Superdome, said Monday that the switchgear “sensed an abnormality” and tripped.

“It was a piece of equipment that did its job,” he said. “We don’t know anything beyond that. It’s premature at this point to say what it was or what caused it.”

A cause will be found and a recurrence of that cause will be suppressed.   And probably, unknown and unintended, something even worse will be seeded in the fixing.

If you have not, I encourage you to read Bak’s Sand Pile: Strategies for a Catastrophic World by Ted G. Lewis.

January 24, 2013

Supply chains: Density increases distance which favors specialization and concentration spawning vulnerabilities

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on January 24, 2013

Three recent reports offer related insights.

Building America’s Future: Transportation Infrastructure Report 2012 (4.8 mgb) tells us,

We have let more than a half-century go by without devising a strategic plan on  a national scale to update our freight and passenger transport systems. The size of our federal investment in transportation infrastructure as a share of GDP has been dwindling for decades, and most federal funds are dispersed to projects without imposing accountability and performance measures. This lack of vision, lack of funding, and lack of accountability has left every mode of transportation in the United States—highways and railroads, airports and sea ports—stuck in the last century and ill-equipped for the demands of a churning global economy.

Building Resilient Supply Chains (6.48 MB) tells us,

…concerns have remained about external threats to supply chains (such as natural disasters and demand shocks) and systemic vulnerabilities (such as oil dependence and information fragmentation). Additionally, growing concern around cyber risk, rising insurance and trade finance costs are leading supply chain experts to explore new mitigation options. Accenture research indicates that more than 80% of companies are now concerned about supply chain resilience.

Gallup Survey finds:

One in four Mississippi residents report there was at least one time in the past 12 months when they did not have enough money to buy the food they or their families needed — more than in any other state in the first half of 2012. Residents in Alabama and Delaware are also among the most likely to struggle to afford food… In 2012, the worst drought since the 1950s has affected nearly 80% of agricultural land in the United States, which may drive up the cost of food in the months ahead. While Americans are no more likely to struggle to afford food thus far in 2012 than in the past, more residents may face problems as the drought-related crop damage results in a shortage of inputs in the food supply and begins to affect retail prices.

So… sources of supply for basic commodities — including water and food — are under stress.  The infrastructure by which supplies are transported is aging and ill-maintained.  The system through which needs/demands are expressed and fulfilled is increasingly vulnerable to disruption.

For at least 10,000 years humans have developed infrastructures to facilitate the meeting of supply with demand, source with need.

Especially in the last 200 years our infrastructures have allowed us to depend on supplies from greater and greater distances.  Our supply lines – our lifelines – have gotten longer and longer.  This has been crucial to our ability to supply increasingly dense population centers.  Increasing population density is supported by our ability to facilitate supply over great distances.

This distancing of lifelines has also encouraged an increasing specialization and concentration of supply – mostly in search of comparative price advantage.  So we see the concentration of pork production in Iowa and North Carolina, fruits and vegetables in California, dairy is increasingly concentrated in a few regions,  mushrooms in Southeast Pennsylvania.

While this is at least a 150 year trend, it is important to recognize how the trend has accelerated and changed over the last half-century. As recently as the 1950s New Jersey truck farms were still the principal source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the New York metro market.

As demand density accelerated in the last half of the 20th Century, we experienced an increased distancing of lifelines.  This distancing also encourages a tendency toward specialization, concentration, and reduced diversity of sources.  Specialization, concentration, and reduced diversity are common characteristics of fragile systems.

In the last thirty years, the distancing of many supply chains has become so extreme that the ability to reasonably balance supply and demand is only possible as a result of sophisticated methods of tracking and anticipating demand well-in-advance.

For most of human history supply has been pushed by suppliers toward where they hoped there was demand.  Today, especially for food, pharma, and most consumables supply is pulled by digital demand signals. If the demand signals stop , so does supply.  This has crucial implications for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

It is worth recognizing that what seems “normal” today would have seemed magical as recently as thirty years ago.  We are enjoying supply chain benefits unprecedented in human history.  Are there also unprecedented risks?

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