Stopping rules and contested regulation

–Society’s critical infrastructures often have a unique stopping rule: the pressures of real-time mandating safe and continuous performance when it matters, right now.

One product of their dread of real-time system failure has been the decision rule that it’s better to entertain a false alarm than have a true alarm ignored. This is observed in the critical infrastructures we studied and their reliability management.

There is, though, no reason to believe that what an infrastructure considers to be “alarming near-hits” are the same as other infrastructures consider, let alone what government identifies through its own disaster scenarios underlying legislation and regulation. Even if precaution were a dominant social value—and it isn’t—it would not be the same value dominant across all society’s critical infrastructures.

It should not be surprising, then, that the government regulatory arena becomes the site of contestation between any “precautionary principle” proposed for society and the stopping mechanisms and rules already in place by its key critical infrastructures.

–A form of societal regulation already occurs in real time by virtue of critical infrastructures prioritizing systemwide reliability and safety as social values (while in the same instant infrastructures serve as the indispensable foundation of real-time economic activities). Societal values are, however, differentiated within infrastructures, not only across them.

Consider the commonplace that regulatory compliance is “the baseline for risk mitigation in infrastructures.” Even so, there is no reason to assume that compliance is the same baseline for, inter alios, the infrastructure’s micro-operators in the field, including the eyes-and-ears field staff; the infrastructure’s headquarters’ staff responsible for monitoring industry practices for meeting government compliance mandates; the senior officials in the infrastructure who see the need for far more than compliance by way of enterprise risk management; those other professionals in the same infrastructure responsible for thinking through a wide range of “what-if” scenarios that vary by all manner of contingencies; and, last but never least, the infrastructure’s reliability professionals—its control room operators, should they exist, and immediate support staff— in the middle of all this, especially in their role of surmounting any (residual) stickiness by way of official procedures and protocols undermining real-time system reliability.

These consequential differences in orientation when it comes to “baseline compliance” mean societal values of systemwide reliability and safety can be just as differentiated and distributed as these staff and their responsibilities are. To put it another way, where highly reliable infrastructures matter to a society, it must also be expected that the social values reflected in these infrastructures not only differ across infrastructures but within them as well.

–Why is this insistence important? It’s routine but misleading to say that “government” has allocative, distributive, regulatory and stabilization functions, and leave it at that—when critical infrastructures are their own allocative, distributive, regulatory and stabilizing mechanisms for generating and distributing social values around societal safety and security, now broadly writ.

Yes, government relies on infrastructures to meet its own functions and, yes, there is an overlap and dependency between the two sets of functions. But the point is infrastructures have their own institutionalized regulatory niche—who else can identify and correct in real time inevitable lapses in procedures promulgated by the official regulators of record?—in addition to the uniquely allocative, distributive and stabilization functions the infrastructures also have.

Sadly, few think to ask, let alone study, how these critical infrastructures—many of which are privately owned or managed in the US—independently affect societal risks, social values and societal regulation. If they did study, they would better understand the extent to which infrastructures having stopping rules enables those in government not to.

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