Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 3, 2014

“Simply a manifestation of the criticality of the system” and the implications if true

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 3, 2014

OSO_Photo by Marcus Yam_The Seattle TimesPhoto by Marcus Yam, The Seattle Times

John Schwartz and the New York Times gave us an unusually thoughtful piece of journalism last Saturday: No Easy Way To Restrict Construction In Risky Areas.  Several cases are examined: Oso Landslide, Sandy, Katrina and more.

This is largely an issue of the transfer, avoidance, reduction, or acceptance of risk.  Very closely related are attitudes toward contingency.

The Oso landslide is a specific case where “complexity originates from the tendency of large dynamical systems to organize themselves into a critical state, with avalanches or punctuations of all sizes.” Other dynamical systems include seismic networks, volcanoes, ocean currents and I would include the electrical grid and significant concentrations (populations) of almost anything.

In a seminal 1995 paper Per Bak and Maya Paczuski outline two very different explanations of the same “punctuation” event:

A Historian Describes a Sandslide.

On December 16, 1994, a grain of sand landed at the site with coordinates [14, 17] on the pile. Adding to the grains of sand already accumulated at this site, this addition caused a toppling of that site, spilling over to the neighboring sites. Unfortunately, one of these sites [14, 18] happened to be near an instability so that the toppling caused this site to topple also. This toppling destabilized sites [14, 19] and [15, 18] and eventually led to the collapse of a large part of the pile. “Clearly, the event was contingent on several factors. First, had the initial grain of sand fallen elsewhere, nothing dramatic would have happened. Also, if the configuration at position [14, 19] had been slightly different, the sandslide would have stopped sooner, without devastating consequences. While we can give an accurate and complete account of what actually happened, we are at a loss to explain how these many accidental features could possibly have conspired to produce an event of such magnitude. The event was contingent upon many separate, freak occurrences and could clearly have been prevented. Furthermore, we are baffled by the fact that even though sand had been added to the system for a longtime, only minor events had occurred before the devastating collapse, and we had every right to expect the system to be stable. Clearly, the event was a freak one caused by very unusual and unfortunate circumstances in an otherwise stable system that appeared to be in balance. Precautions should and could be taken to prevent such events in the future.

A Physicist Describes a Sandslide

During a long transient period, the pile evolved to a critical state with avalanches of all sizes. We were able to make a rough identification of the toppling rule and to construct a computer model of the phenomenon. Actually, the particular rule that we use is not very important. In any case, we do not have sufficient information about the details of the system to be able to make long-term predictions. “Nevertheless, our model exhibits some general features of the sandpile. We monitored how many avalanches of each size occurred, after the addition of a single grain to the pile. We made a histogram (Fig. 2), and found that the distribution of events where a total of s sites topple obeys a power law, P(s)- s-T. Thus, if one waits long enough, one is bound to see events that are as large as one has the patience to wait for. We ran our simulations (the tape of evolution) several times. Eliminating the particular grain of sand that caused a particular avalanche only made the system produce large avalanches somewhere else at different times. Changing the rules slightly — for instance, by planting snow screens here and there — does not have any effect on the general pattern.

Avalanches are an unavoidable and intrinsic part of the sandpile dynamics. “Actually, I’m not interested in the specific details of the event which Prof. Historian is so excited about and gives such a vivid account of. What the professor sees as a string of freak events appearing accidentally and mysteriously by an apparent act of God and leading to a catastrophe is simply a manifestation of the criticality of the system. History has prepared the sandpile in a state that is far from equilibrium, and the matrix through which the avalanche propagates is predisposed to accommodate events of large sizes. The complex dynamics which is observed in the ‘historical science,’ where the outcome appears contingent on many different, specific events, represents the dynamics of self-organized critical systems.

Historical narrative is inclined toward an understanding of reality where human intention, rationality and will can assert control.  Bak and Paczuski point toward the possibility of domains beyond our power, though certainly deserving our attention and respect.

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

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 16, 2014

Engaging Uncertainty

Filed under: Catastrophes,Disaster,Infrastructure Protection,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on January 16, 2014

Water-Order     Gov. Tomblin (right) and Jeff McIntyre, West Virginia American Water

Late on January 9 not much was known about the chemical leak into the Elk River. No one seemed to know how much of the chemical had poured into the river or been sucked into the water system. No one could be sure what sort of health-risks might arise from skin contact or ingesting water tainted with the obscure chemical. There was uncertainty about when the contamination had begun and how long it might take to remove the contamination. When 300,000 people might again be able to consume their tap water was beyond reasonable prediction.

Our species survived — and eventually thrived — largely based on our weird ability to imagine the future and recognize steps to achieve (or avoid) what we imagine. When this imagination is anchored in experience or knowledge (indirect-experience) it is a source of confidence, even solace. When the anchor is ripped up and our fragile craft is swept into a cyclone of uncertainty… well, different folks respond in different ways. But there is a tendency for fear to proliferate, which can unwind in atypical behaviors and amplify uncertainty.

In the first two days of the West Virginia water crisis there were many indicators of imagination untethered. Rumors spread. Conspiracies were alleged. Even worse to come was envisioned. But mostly fears were contained, rumors corrected, and a covenant of social trust and mutual concern was, if anything, strengthened.

A 500 word blog — okay, I’m not always so concise — is not the right place to undertake a full analysis of what happened and did not happen in terms of community resilience. But I advocate this being done.

My hypothesis is that what happened mostly involved the expression of preexisting social networks and relationships.

But I also want to credit — and ask others to more rigorously explore — the role of leadership that was courageous enough to embrace uncertainty.

I was in eastern West Virginia (outside the impact area) from Sunday through Tuesday, close enough to get a bit more of the local media angle. I was impressed by the calm, realistic, and consistently understated approach of the Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, and the President of West Virginia American Water, Jeff McIntyre.

I never heard them claim to be in control. I did hear them state clearly the sources of uncertainty. They outlined in writing and in their remarks what was being done to engage the uncertainty. They did not try to distract citizens from the uncertainty with accusatory vents. They did focus on what citizens could do for themselves and their neighbors. They recognized progress. They did not over-promise.

Here is one of the first statements made by the Governor (bold highlights by me).

We urge all residents in the affected areas to follow West Virginia American Water Company’s “do not use” order until it is lifted. This includes water companies supplied by West Virginia American Water in this area. If you live in one of these areas, do not use tap water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing, or bathing. At this time, I do not know how long this will last.

Don’t neglect the use of that personal pronoun.  Next he said:

We ask that all West Virginian’s check on their friends, families, and neighbors—especially those with small children and seniors living in their households—to make sure they have enough water, food, and supplies. If you—or anyone you know–experiences symptoms including: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, irritation of the eyes and skin, seek care immediately.

Here’s what a citizen can do, even should do.  The most important action that can be taken is to practically and personally renew the human relationships on which we all depend.  Begin some new relationships if you can.  Then, here’s what  your government is doing on your behalf (he said more, this is one of four paragraphs):

I’ve mobilized and deployed all appropriate government assets and resources, including our Office of Emergency Management, our experts at DEP, DHHR Bureau of Public Health along with our National Guard—who are out doing health and wellness checks across the area along with collecting, testing and monitoring the water. The federal government is also providing assistance. The President has approved my request to issue a federal emergency declaration to provide FEMA resources. County emergency offices are also working 24-7.

Your basic human needs can and will be addressed:

If you are low on bottled water, do not panic. Help is on the way. We are taking every measure to provide water to you. There is no shortage of bottled water. Supplies are moving into the area as we speak. We encourage all West Virginians in affected areas to contact their local emergency management office for water distribution sites.

Please be active in helping yourself and others:

If you or your organization would like to donate supplies, please contact your local emergency center. If you are in the Kanawha Valley Area, we are organizing a call to action drive for needed items—including water, sanitizer, wipes, liquid baby formula, paper plates, plastic utensils, and microwavable meals. The drive will take place on the Boulevard in front of the State Capitol from 2:30 – 6:30 today. It is important to emphasize, water and supplies are available—there is not a persistent shortage of bottled water.

We are grateful for the offers of support from private firms and charities—and our fellow West Virginians—to aid in providing relief.

This is the second time I have listened-in to Governor Tomblin deal with a basically no-notice and hard-hitting disaster.  The first time was the late-June 2012 Derecho.  In that multi-state event I was able to compare and contrast his approach to that of other governors, mayors, and such.   When others were attacking, blaming, and threatening, Governor Tomlin was thanking and encouraging and informing.

I think there are some lessons to be learned.

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.

November 9, 2013

Wednesday + Thursday = Saturday

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 9, 2013

Did anyone else notice the potential continuity between Chris Bellavita’s Wednesday post and my Thursday post?

It was entirely coincidental.

But — at least for me — my critique of catastrophe “plans” is creatively answered by Patrick Lagadec’s Navigating the Unknown (linked to by Chris)The strategic stance and organizational capacity advocated by Lagadec is a big part of what I perceive is most helpful in preparing for a catastrophe.

If you haven’t already, download and read and think about and talk about Lagadec’s free booklet. Writing about your impressions/reactions here might be an effective way to advance some shared thinking.

A couple of dozen readers, some I know well and some I have never met, have sent me private emails regarding my Thursday critique. Many seem to be in various states of distress.

I will not have the opportunity this weekend to respond personally to each of you.  In an attempt to be generically responsive: I am not trying to eliminate the planning profession in emergency management.   In specific regard to catastrophe planning, I hope you will read Lagadec, review your current plans and assess to what extent your current plans advance what Lagadec is advocating.

If not, why not?

November 7, 2013

Preparedness is different than planning

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 7, 2013

A rather small piece in the online version of The Atlantic flooded my in-box last week on the first anniversary of Sandy flooding coastal New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

David Wachsmuth describes how existing response and recovery plans were ignored.  He writes:

… emergency managers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania created a Regional Catastrophic Planning Team for precisely this kind of emergency. But when the storm hit, the RCPT’s plans stayed on the shelf, particularly in New York City. As one NYC emergency manager described it to me, “The federal government spent millions of dollars on [the regional plan] and…we did not do anything. All the planning and all the dollars that were spent on regional planning [and] not once did we open the book to say, ‘Let’s do it this way.’”

Wachsmuth then explains why the book was left unopened.  He also points to other “books” he believes worth reading.  I agree with many of the symptoms Wachsmuth describes.  I doubt we share the same diagnosis (see below).

I especially disagree with the conclusion suggested by the title of his piece (How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters).  I am too much a disciple of Elinor Ostrom to reduce such manifold problems to jurisdictional diversity.

Full disclosure:  For most of the last four years I have been involved in regional preparedness for catastrophe in the mid-Atlantic, funded by the same FEMA grant as the unopened book in metro New York.  As such I have met with, admired, even envied the NY-NJ-CT and one-county in PA RCPT.   In every interaction I have been impressed by the expertise and commitment of these planners.   The actual plans were (are) thoughtful and extremely detailed.  There was considerable effort to socialize — even evangelize — the planning process and ultimate plans.

I disagree with the strategic predispositions of some of their plans. But by exposing their assumptions planners make possible intelligent discussion, exploration, and evolution.  The RCPT planners have always been open to comments, critique, and improvement.  They have been consummate professionals.

But in my judgement we cannot plan for catastrophe.

–+–

plan  noun

1. a scheme or method of acting, doing, proceeding, making, etc., developed in advance:battle plans.
2. a design or scheme of arrangement: an elaborate plan for seating guests.
3. a specific project or definite purpose: plans for the future.

–+–

Wachsmuth writes that RCPT plans  were “quickly sidelined by the Mayor’s Office.”  This alone suggests that Sandy — as bad as she was — was not the cause of a local, much less, regional catastrophe.  The Mayor’s office still had sufficient command-and-control to assert authority.  One persuasive definition of catastrophe is the total collapse of local command-and-control capabilities. (I think this definition originated with a regular reader and I hope she might comment further.)

Plans typically — though not necessarily — depend on systematic implementation by an authority.  Most emergency-or-disaster-or-catastrophe plans authorize atypical exercise of command-and-control, going well beyond the ordinary.

Yet any thing qualifying as a potential catastrophe has, ipso facto, at least confused if not destroyed most sources of authority and means of coordination.  Catastrophes are not just complicated they are innately complex, easily becoming chaotic.  Indeed some argue that efforts to contain catastrophric complexity accelerate the emergence of chaos.

Please notice that in the prior full-disclosure paragraph my role is identified as being involved in regional preparedness for catastrophe.

–+–

prepare  verb

1. to make ready or suitable in advance for a particular purpose or for some use, event, etc: to prepare a meal ; to prepare to go
2. to put together using parts or ingredients; compose or construct
3. ( tr ) to equip or outfit, as for an expedition

–+–

Beware of nouns.  Embrace verbs.

There is, of course, a verb form of plan, but even this action is usually focused on developing a noun (the plan).  Preparedness is an awkward noun.  Much better to stay with verbs: prepare, train/educate, exercise, assess, analyze, plan,  implement, prepare, train/educate, exercise, assess, analyze, plan, implement, and again… and again.

Plan as a verb helps. Not as a noun.

You knew it was coming:  To plan was originally to plane.  Ancient armies would plane battlefields to create space to operate chariots or otherwise shape for strategic advantage.  To prepare is derived from the root meaning to parry another sword or spar with another boxer or separate from a source of vulnerability. (The prefix pre- signaling to be ready to do so by what is done in advance.)

I am not opposed to planning.  But to be ready for the truly catastrophic is less about choosing and shaping context to suit your preferences and much more about being ready — psychologically and operationally — to effectively engage the range of surprises a catastrophe will create.

October 31, 2013

Prosaic sight and poetic insight

Filed under: Catastrophes,Futures,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 31, 2013

risingwaters_full

Once Again by Amy Medina

Tuesday an exhibition of photographs related to last year’s assault by the one-time Hurricane Sandy opened at the Museum of the City of New York. It will run through March 2, 2014. I saw a sort-of-preview at the International Center of Photography in September.

The photography critic, James Estrin, headlined his blog post on the exhibition, “A Prosaic View of Hurricane Sandy.” The title provokes several questions, including: Is it possible the results of Sandy point toward a future when similar events will become ordinary, everyday, vapid, humdrum, tedious, tiresome, uninteresting… prosaic?

Based on our behavior, this is how most of us perceive 150 murders a day in Syria (in the US three people are killed by gun per hour) or the continuing suffering in Haiti or the accelerating entropy of US infrastructure or… another choice from a long list of seemingly intractable crises.  Plenty of prose is available on each.  But persuasive insight?

20131028-lens-sandy-slide-NB0X-jumbo

Photojournalism by Matt Nighswander/NBC News

Many — maybe most — of the more than 200 images in the exhibit are amateur color digitals of Americans in the midst of circumstances we still consider far outside the ordinary: destroyed homes, flooded streets, surrounded by mountains of donated clothes, waiting in long lines for water or food or fuel. The images personalize vulnerability (or should I write threat or consequence or simply stick with risk?).

Because you read Homeland Security Watch, you would probably do what I did with most of these photographs: Connect each human face and its context to a policy, strategy, or tactic. Consequence of subsidized insurance. Consequence of delayed maintenance. Consequence of unsolicited donations. Consequence of coordination failure. Consequence of faulty problem analysis. And so it goes, cause and effect unfolding.

None of this is necessarily wrong. Observation and analysis are among the best bets in the human toolkit. Lessons-learned can be very important the next time.  But I suggest this is seeing — and thinking — in prose.

20131028-lens-sandy-slide-G2SU-jumbo

Image_DSC6477b.jpg by Alex Fradkin

Prose is where most of us should spend most of our time and energy.  There are ordinary, everyday, tedious problems and issues to engage.  A bit more time and energy on a disciplined process of risk analysis for fuel distribution in the New York metro area would have paid big dividends twelve months ago.

But there is also a profound need for more poetic seeing, thinking, and doing.

Prose can be good at breaking apart the complicated into its component parts.  Prose alone is usually insufficient for perceiving — in any meaningful way — the whole or envisioning entirely new possibilities.  Prose needs at least a touch of poetry to move from understanding to transforming.

The classical Greeks understood poiesis, from which our poetry is derived, as any kind of creating or making.  Trying to interpret the Greek sense of the term, Martin Heidegger blends making (machen), production (herstellen), and power (macht).  Does anyone anymore even aspire to this sort of poetics?

The problems and opportunities of homeland security need both prose and poetry.  But we are especially deficient in poetry.

jet-star-roller-coaster-Alex-Fradkin

Jetstar by Alex Fradkin

October 17, 2013

Polycentric Resilience

Filed under: Resilience,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 17, 2013

Reflections on resilience emerging from the shutdown:

You probably saw the story where the State of Arizona did a deal to reopen the Grand Canyon to tourists.  New York and South Dakota made similar arrangements for the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore.

In Utah and Wyoming visits to state parks exploded after nearby national parks were closed.

Over the last two weeks I have been busy working with state and local homeland security officials preparing for a big regional exercise in late October.  (Admittedly important federal funds had already been transferred.)

According to the Global Post, some Chinese envy the resilience of American society in the midst of the federal government shutdown:

Since the shutdown began nine days ago, Chinese social media have been full of wistful, almost admiring remarks about how the shutdown could only happen in a democratic country with a resilient economy and responsive political representation… 

Many posts discussed how such a shutdown could never happen in China, because the country would immediately be plunged into chaos. The fact that many state and local government functions have continued despite the shutdown was a particular object of marvel. One Chinese author who resides in the US expressed wonder that “in the days since the government closed, everybody is unconcerned.” 

“The reason is simple,” he continued. “Just because the federal government shut down, that doesn’t mean the local government is shut down. The various levels of government do not depend on each other.” Alluding to Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” he concluded that “by understanding local autonomy, you understand America.” 

Some see federalism as an inefficient way to govern a modern nation.  But as seen during the shutdown,  diversity of jurisdictions can be a source of resilience.  Moreover, several studies have found that “polycentric” political structures are often more efficient than most centralized systems.

In her 2009 Nobel Lecture, the late Elinor Ostrom reported:

The most efficient producers supply more output for given inputs in high multiplicity metropolitan areas than do the efficient producers in metropolitan areas with fewer producers… Metropolitan areas with large numbers of autonomous direct service producers achieved higher levels of technical efficiency… We demonstrated that complexity is not the same as chaos in regard to metropolitan governance.  That lesson has carried forth as we have undertaken further empirical studies of polycentric governance of resource and infrastructure systems across the world. (Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems)

Part of what’s happening here, it seems to me (but I have never read Dr. Ostrom suggesting anything similar), is an echo of the Jeffersonian notion that government closest to the governed is the most  efficacious government.  What has surely been found is that governance does not always involve government.

Elinor Ostrom and colleagues have found — and confirmed again and again — that communications, trust, and mutual monitoring are crucial in sustaining any resilient system. From the same Nobel Lecture:

Where individuals do not know one another, cannot communicate effectively, and thus cannot develop agreements, norms and sanctions, aggregate predictions derived from models of rational individuals in a  non-cooperative game receive substantial support… On the other hand, the capacity to overcome dilemmas and create effective governance occurred far more frequently than expected.

In particular cooperation and shared compliance with self-generated boundaries and rules increase when six specific conditions are achieved.  (See page 433 of the lecture text and my final paragraph below.)  Having observed these outcomes in a wide-range of different contexts and cultures, Dr. Ostrom concludes her lecture with:

A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.  We need to ask how diverse polycentric  institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.

More resilience emerges from more communication — especially face-to-face communications — with people who know each other or are at least familiar with each other’s backgrounds, where each person’s contribution can be significant and each can come and go without much risk, yet where long-term engagement has a reasonable opportunity for generating greater value than disengagement (regardless of how value is defined), and those involved can largely self-sustain a sanctioning system for boundaries and norms mutually accepted.

What does the evidence of the last three weeks tell us regarding the state of polycentric resilience in the United States?

October 3, 2013

Us versus them

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 3, 2013

Sunnis continue to target Shia in Iraq.   The reverse is also alleged.  (Deadly suicide bombings.)

In Syria Sunni dominate the insurgency as the regime works to wrap itself in the support of most others. Some even see the US as allied with Assad in anti-Sunni animus.  (Same fight against radical Islam.)

In Kenya Shabaab did what it could to underline the difference between Muslim, Christian, and Hindu.  (Though many insist they failed.)

Buddhists are killing Muslims in Burma (Myanmar). (Sectarian Violence.)

India and Pakistan were founded in sectarian strife.  These differences continue to complicate the relations of two nuclear-armed neighbors. (Hindu-Muslim Clashes)

A Christian and/or animist South confronts a Muslim North in Nigeria and across much of the Sahel. (Extremist killings, tight security.)

Threats against Jews are so common as to be widely neglected. (Global Antisemitism)

In the Philippines the division is between a Christian North and a Muslim South. (New clash raises fears.)  In Thailand a Muslim South contends with a Buddhist North. (Savage escalation threatened.)

Modern notions of self-martyrdom were forged as Buddhist Sinhalas confronted Hindu Tamils.  The tension persists. (Tamil abuses denied.)

The list could easily continue tediously long.  In many cases the religious differences amplified by ethnic, tribal, and class distinctions.  Demography as destiny?

Paul Tillich a German-American-Christian-Protestant-Existentialist scholar wrote:

God is being-itself.  After this has been said nothing else can be said about God as God which is not symbolic… Therefore if anything beyond this bare assertion is said about God it is no longer a direct and proper statement, no longer a concept. It is indirect pointing to something beyond itself: symbolic. (Systematic Theology)

Confusing the symbolic as being-itself is common.

Most of our antagonisms do not arise from any profound discovery of substantive ontological distinction.  Rather we fuss and fight over superficial symbols that, as much as anything else, distract us from the much more taxing task of engaging with being-itself.  This is the case well beyond the religious or spiritual and is especially true of the political.

There are broadly two strategic options: Persist with symbolic arguments (religion vs. religion, faith vs. science, conviction vs. conviction, etc. vs. etc.) or resist symbolism and insist on dealing with being itself.  The first strategy involves arguing between answers.  The second involves asking questions.  Neither is easy.

It may just be my conviction, but I perceive the second option — dealing with being-itself — is more likely to have lasting outcomes.

September 5, 2013

Shaping the context: Syria and more

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Resilience,Strategy,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on September 5, 2013

Our options in Syria are, as far as I can see, all bad.  Any action or non-action involves chaotic possibilities — probabilities — well beyond confident prediction.

In our increasingly interconnected, interdependent, dynamic — and therefore complex — world this seems to be the one source of consistency on which we can depend:  Outcomes are uncertain.

There may even be a corollary:  The more confident one is of a specific outcome, the more likely the confidence is misplaced.

Even as our tools of observation, analysis and action become more powerful our capacity to accurately anticipate results seems to recede until — not unlike our oldest ancestors — we are left arguing analogies.

Is this Hitler’s Rhineland or Poland or Stalingrad?  1914 Serbia or 1938 Czechoslovakia?  Are we in the midst of a new Thirty Years War or merely the newest wrinkle in a 3000 year-old-struggle?  Is our best model a new Treaty of Westphalia or Ataturk’s solution or some sort of Ottoman consensus or expanded Concert of Europe?  Are we truly latter day Crusaders or closer to Pax Romana administrators (with our share of both Pilate’s and Pliny’s)? The historical comparisons are endless and treacherous.

I will add one more analogy which is less about a specific outcome — ultimate or ephemeral — than how context can be shaped.

A true story: Once upon a time long-ago, but no longer so far away, the Great King-of-Kings was challenged by a minor kinglet from the edge of the civilized world. Despite the overwhelming resources available to the King-of-Kings, prior encounters with the upstart had not ended well, costing the empire considerable lives, treasure and prestige.

When various political and diplomatic efforts failed and the provocations persisted, even increased, the King-of-Kings decided patient persistence required the reinforcement of other techniques.  Accordingly and with careful political deliberation, military planning and battlefield execution the King-of-Kings gathered all he needed at a time and place of his choosing.  Ancient sources disagree on details, yet all concur the balance of forces was at least 2-to-1 and credibly as much as 5-to-1.

But an unexpected oblique upended the established order.  The King-of-Kings was chased from the field of battle, his centuries-old empire imploding, and a whole new cultural reality emerging from this unexpected loss.

What the clearly weaker party could claim as comparative advantage was mobility, flexibility, curiosity, discipline, diversity, unity, speed, innovation, and considerable self-confidence.  These strengths were demonstrated on that battlefield 2344 years ago on October 1.  Even more important, the upstart’s culture demonstrated the same characteristics, long surviving the short life of its victorious king.

I don’t have an answer for what we should do in Syria.  But whatever we do — or don’t — and whatever the outcome here and abroad, I hope our choices will nurture the characteristics of this and many other upstarts across history.  These are the intellectual and spiritual foundations of resilience.

We will be challenged, sometimes horribly.  We will make bad choices, sometimes tragically. But our homeland will enjoy greater security the more we embrace mobility, flexibility, curiosity, discipline, diversity, unity, speed, innovation, and self-confidence.

August 22, 2013

Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy: The government’s role in fostering resilience

Filed under: Recovery,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 22, 2013

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Here’s the lead paragraph from Monday’s Department of Housing and Urban Development news release:

President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, chaired by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, today released a rebuilding strategy to serve as a model for communities across the nation facing greater risks from extreme weather and to continue helping the Sandy-affected region rebuild.  The Rebuilding Strategy contains 69 policy recommendations, many of which have already been adopted, that will help homeowners stay in and repair their homes, strengthen small businesses and revitalize local economies and ensure entire communities are better able to withstand and recover from future storms. 

Here’s a link to the full report.

Excellent overview of impact and consequences.  The sixty-nine recommendations are all reasonable and, if even partially implemented, will advance resilience and readiness.

As my once teen-aged son commented, “When you open with praise is when I really get nervous.”

This is very much a government-to-government document.  How do various federal agencies coordinate? How do federal, state, and local jurisdictions coordinate or at least avoid conflict? The interagency and intergovernmental challenges are real.  This document should help with these issues.  Every recommendation is doable and assigned out for doing.

But if a broader mandate was intended, it has certainly gotten lost.

One example from a section giving priority to “restore and strengthen homes, providing families with safe, affordable housing options.”

34. RECOMMENDATION: Bring together the Housing RSF and Emergency Support Function six partner agencies to review and integrate existing housing plans, as well as existing statutes, regulations, and policies for potential changes (statutory, regulatory or policy) to improve the delivery of housing solutions for future disasters.

Might it also be a good idea to bring together major builders and managers of housing?

Someone reading the Task Force Report might be excused for thinking the private sector had been totally obliterated by Hurricane Sandy and has not returned.  Housing is not the only place where the absence of private players is remarkable.

Toward the end of the report I thought, aha here we go most of the reach-out to the private sector has been consolidated under a single title.  There is a section called, “Facilitate Opportunities for Community and Non-Profit Engagement in Capacity Building and Actively Engage Philanthropy to Fill Capacity Gaps.”  This tees-up precisely one recommendation:

61. RECOMMENDATION: Facilitate and expand opportunities for philanthropic and non-profit engagement in recovery, including opportunities for organizations that work with vulnerable populations. The CPCB RSFs in New York and New Jersey should actively support funder collaboratives that provide grants to nonprofits working in coordination with government. This should include encouragement of sub-grants to NGOs that would assist in accomplishing the Federal outreach requirements, including those specific to vulnerable populations to ensure they are included in the recovery planning process.

To be fair there are a couple of recommendations that seem to involve elements of the community beyond the government. Further, there is evidence the Task Force actively reached out to consult with a broader cross-section… though contact with the commercial sector is not explicit.  There are other initiatives that have featured robust private-public engagement in conceiving post-Sandy priorities.

Still, a Stalinist apparatchik awaking from a seventy year nap might read the Task Force report and find good cause to believe central planning had also been adopted by the United States.

Precisely because centralized planning is not our reality, some greater attention to the private — individual, family, neighborhood, not-for-profit, and commercial — domain would have strengthened what is a helpful report.

August 8, 2013

An abundance of caution

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Risk Assessment,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 8, 2013

Diplomatic Posts ClosedOn Monday the State Department’s deputy spokesperson, Marie Harf, explained several U.S. diplomatic posts would remain closed for up to a week out of an “abundance of caution” prompted by a potential terrorist attack.

As the Tsarnaev brothers fled, flinging explosives from their stolen car, residents of Boston and many close-in suburbs were told to stay inside behind locked doors.  The unprecedented, rather amazing, shut-down of a huge urban area was justified by an abundance of caution emerging from a proven murderous capacity and a continued proximate capability demonstrated just hours before.

As Hurricane Sandy churned north, Mayor Bloomberg announced mandatory evacuations and scheduled suspension of the transit system as warranted by an abundance of caution. Soon enough — and well before landfall — he was warning of a clear and present danger.

Congressional leaders who have been briefed on the intelligence “stream” are unified in endorsing the abundance of caution undertaken in recent days.  It is reassuring that our feuding representatives can find anything on which to agree.  Especially when such vociferous political adversaries make common-cause, I am inclined to defer to their assessment of the current context.  The evidence has, apparently, pointed to a fast-approaching threat.

But I will raise an issue of strategy or perhaps policy beyond the current circumstance: With Hurricane Sandy the threat velocity was known and New York was absolutely in the target zone.  In the case of Boston, Watertown, and near-by, bombing, murder and mayhem were undeniably clear and present.

What seems to be the situation with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and AQ-Core is a communications intercept involving a vague instruction to do something big.  I will admit this strikes me — so early in the post-Snowden period — as a suspicious choice by Messrs. Zawahiri and Wuhayshi. (Or… in our Kafkaesque counterterrorism context is the intercept report a false-flag to distract AQ et al from the actual tradecraft involved?) When or where or precisely who might carry out the attack is not known.  So… we evacuate or shelter-in-place across roughly the same expansive space as the Umayyad Caliphate.

But… taking the reported intercept on face value, AQAP has a significant capacity in Yemen.  Given demonstrated AQAP capabilities, the shuttering of our Sana’a facility and evacuation of most personnel is probably a prudent measure.  (The government of Yemen disagrees and claims to have foiled a local plot.)

We have seen that other AQ franchises across North Africa, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere also have existing capacity.  I don’t have the resources to assess threat capabilities in each nation where our official outpost has closed its doors.  No doubt if the decision-criterion is an “abundance of caution” a sufficient argument can be made for each.

–+–

Last week I was given a boilerplate contract to sign.  It included a clause that could have been used by the other party to claim 125 percent of any revenue I generated from a set of long-time clients.  This was not the original intent of the clause, but was a possible application.  Such action by the other party is very unlikely, but out of an abundance of caution I arranged for an amendment to the agreement.

This is an example of the origins of the phrase.  In Latin it is “ex abundanti cautela”.  In Roman law the tendency to explicitly engage and counter very unlikely possibilities is prompted by an an abundance of caution.  Such action is certainly prudent. It is also — at least in the context of ancient Roman law — tedious, pedantic, and often so ridiculous as to become absurd.

Today the phrase is usually unveiled with a kind of magisterial flourish that suggests no reasonable person could possibly contest the good sense of behaving with an abundance of caution.

Is over-abundance possible?

New York could — out of an abundance of caution — announce voluntary evacuations every time one of those individual tracks in the hurricane cone-of-probability crosses between Atlantic City and the Hamptons.

The Boston area shelter-in-place order was lifted about 6:15 PM.  After nearly eleven hours behind locked doors, caution seemed a bit over-ripe. The surviving suspect was located in the boat about a half-hour later.  What would have been our assessment of the Boston shut-down if the second suspect had not been located that evening?

 –+–

Most of our risks are no-notice. But with hurricanes — and to a lesser extent tornadoes and blizzards — there is an emerging ability to take action to avert harm.  The reason we spend billions on  the intelligence community and offer the first fruits of liberty on the altar of security is to give us similar warning for evil intention.

What we have learned from weather-related warning is that preventive action not followed by a confirming event increases the tendency of the population to take unnecessary risks next time.  Over-zealous — or unlucky — efforts to prevent harm can perversely cause greater harm.

While we are certainly dealing with probabilities, this is not — yet — a matter of contending mathematical models.  We are left with concepts… judgments… words.  Always fallible, but fully worth our careful thought.

An abundance of caution is an ancient legal principle supportive of taking preventive action. So is the common law’s “bad tendency” which was succeeded by “clear and present danger” which has evolved into justifying preventive action by the State only where the threat of violence is both imminent and likely.

Is the threat proximate in time and space and probable?  We will still disagree, but these are the right questions to ask.  These are the right questions to answer in justifying dramatic preventive or preemptive action.

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.

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