4 things not learned at the start

1. My perspective on being a policy analyst and researcher is unexceptional in three ways that hold for other careers:

  • I work from within pre-existing structures (language, organizations, networks, the hardwired brain, my profession. . .) that I did not create;
  • My perspective on these structures is not wholly determined by them, since I and others are also products of contingencies (accidents, luck, happenstance, conjunctures, chance); and
  • Our perspectives do matter, but differently. Some bear witness to that which they cannot change; some criticize and critique conditions that must be changed; some provide longer-term alternatives to work toward, even if shorter-term interventions prove infeasible; some express the person I am, regardless of intent or consequence.

2. A significant category mistake is committed when conflating (1) the unfolding and interrelated consequences on life, property and markets of, say, a hazardous liquids pipeline explosion on adjacent populations and property and (2) the explosion’s consequences for the interconnected critical infrastructure system for those hazardous liquids, which includes not just these pipelines and associated refineries, but also just as significantly the electricity and water infrastructures that the former depends upon in real time.  

To equate the relevant system definition with the spread and interaction of knock-on population-and-property consequences of failure (Cf) is to identify as a problem the lack of systemwide management of Cf. As when: Jurisdictions don’t coordinate in managing the spread and consequences of the explosion.

Even so and at the same time, that interconnected critical infrastructure system, which includes but is not limited hazardous liquids, may in fact be managed by the control rooms of the respective infrastructures. They do so because they have to share the same real-time variables like pipeline pressure and electrical voltage. As when: Infrastructure operators and emergency managers coordinate to restore the backbone infrastructures of electricity and water supplies lost because of the hazardous liquids’ explosion.

3. In order to say something new about an intractable policy issue or see it afresh, change the genre within which you think and write about it. The academic article, a short blog, a play, the “I-believe” manifesto–all and more have their own conventions. To take a major policy issue you worry about and then focus the dense dark beam of altogether unfamiliar conventions over it, is to see what is left to glimmer there.

If something does glimmer, it’s probably because of the ambiguities any major issue brings with it—namely, those elements present in any major, longstanding policy issue but missing (effaced) in the dominant arguments of the day. The good news is that ambiguity, like any metaphor, cries out to be evaluated.

4. When I read criticisms that blame deaths or injuries in a disaster on the “lack of coordination,” I expect to see answers to two immediate questions: (1) can it be demonstrated that the lack of coordination did not arise because the responders knew—or thought so at the time—that they were undertaking activities just as urgent; and (2) can we conclude that the event in question would (not could, should, might or perhaps) have been better responded to had it not been handled the way it was (the classic counterfactual)?

Rarely, I find, are answers even attempted, let alone provided. The counterfactual often has a twofold would. The sociologist, Raymond Aron, ask critics of decisionmakers: “What would you do, in their place, and how would you do it?” (my italics)

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