The chop-logic in risks, tradeoffs and priorities, with examples from emergency management

Professional emergency responders will tell you each major disaster is different, and importantly so. While admitting commonalities, they will go on and insist the emergencies they have experienced differ because of the unique features. This commonality-but-uniqueness also tells us something very significant about thinking in terms of risks, tradeoffs and priorities when it comes to criticality in societal survival.

Take any major policy issue–not just as an emergency–and start analyzing it for the first time. Much of the talk quickly becomes one about the major risks involved, tradeoffs they reflect, and the priorities both call for. Even policy analysts and policymakers take for granted that RTPs are, well, the natural place to start analysis in a world of limited resources.

I can’t imagine a more misleading and misguided way to begin analyzing complex policy and management.

It’s a chop-logic when assuming that difficult policy issues share the same point of departure and that their first-order differences are around separate kinds of RTPs (financial, environmental, you-name-it). Yet they are far less in play than one might suppose for society’s critical services up to, during, and immediately after a major disaster.

Empirically yes, it’s obvious that major critical infrastructures operate under budget and personnel constraints. Even so there is a point at which their centralized control rooms (if present) will not tradeoff systemwide reliability for, say, cost reductions.

Why? Because when the electricity grid islands, people die. Preventing disasters, more routinely than not, is what highly reliable infrastructures do. It is in routine operations where “emergency management” starts, not in special emergency planning or preparedness programs.

Empirically, when a catastrophe does happen, the pressing clarity, urgency and logic of immediate emergency response have been repeatedly demonstrated: Restore the backbone infrastructures of electricity, water supplies, telecoms, and roads.

In fact, there is no better acknowledgement of the importance and centrality of infrastructures that don’t tradeoff high reliability at critical junctures in their normal operations than the self-evident necessity of restoring backbone infrastructures as soon as possible when normal operations fail across infrastructures.

Empirically, it is true that RTP-logic moves center-stage in longer term recovery after infrastructures fail, but only to the extent a high reliability in service provision has yet to be restored to (a new) normal for the infrastructures.

That said, even during recovery, really-existing analysis and deliberation are far, far messier than, e.g., “the risks, tradeoffs and priorities with respect to flood recovery are the obvious center of attention.” Often entailed in this RTP-logic is the assumption that the real problems in recovery from flooding and like are past politics, follow the dollar, and jerks running the show.

The actual problem is that the chop-logic of “P follows from R and T” is anti-empirical. In my experience, those knowledgeable about critical infrastructure operations better understand how short such taken-for-grantedness falls for what matters operationally society-wide. Anti-empirical gets you only so far, especially when it seems natural.

Methodologically, this means that the first-order differentiation in policies and management that are critically society-wide is not around RTPs. Rather, it is differentiating that starting-point complexity in terms of the number of issue components, the different functions and roles of each component, and the interconnections between and among them.

If afterwards, risks, tradeoffs and priorities are found center-staged, at least they will be unavoidably relevant and contingently path-dependent, if not case specific. Yes, each major flood is different, and importantly so; but even commonalities demonstrate that.

Addendum

After I wrote the preceding, I came across an illustration of one of the entry’s major points and why it matters. The point: It is in the recovery of large socio-technical systems that have failed where you are most likely to see risks and tradeoffs lead to priorities, albeit in their post-disaster messy incarnations.

I quote from an article found on the left-of-center aggregator, the-syllabus.com:

Then, in September 2020, the company [Airbnb] announced its City Portal initiative. Its marketing material stated that City Portal (https://news.airbnb.com/cityportal/) aimed to help governments and tourism organisations “deal with the economic fallout and lost tourism tax revenues from the current COVID-19 pandemic”, by providing data on listings and a service product for the collection of tax revenues. Airbnb has long been criticised for not providing the data necessary for local governments to enforce regulation, and yet here it was offering to work in partnership.
With this form of partnership-building, Airbnb is aiming for institutional legitimacy in a bid to prevent stricter regulations that threaten to undermine its extractive business model. Niels van Doorn, Eva Mos and Jelke Bosma argue that its offer to collect tourism taxes – traditionally a task undertaken by governments – “forms a step toward logistically integrating the company’s platform into [the city’s] tax collection system[s]”.

I’m not in a position to confirm the particulars of the quote.

However if they hold, their point is far more important than tracking just another crisis in the long arc of always-late capitalism. Recovery from something as major as the pandemic is precisely where we would expect to see major institutional changes enacted in the name of “P follows from R and T.”

In disaster, everything is connected to everything else; trade-offs are rampant. So too for infrastructures in ways not seen during their highly reliable normal operations. Yet here you have a private company offering to take over not just “a government function,” but one of its defining functions, the ability to collect taxes.

Principal sources

Berfelde, R. (2022). Platform Alterations: How Covid-hit Airbnb reinvented itself. . .as privatised urban infrastructure. The Sociological Review (accessed online on February 16 2022 at https://thesociologicalreview.org/magazine/february-2022/covid-refigurations/platform-alterations/)

Strang, C. (1970). “What if Everyone Did That?” in Baruch Brody (ed.), Moral Rules and Particular Consequences, Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ

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