Resilience isn’t what you think

The opposite of the coping herder, who can only react to external shocks, is the resilient herder, who bounces back from the same. But how true is that? Both occur at the individual level, and the opposite of the individual is the collective (think “team situational awareness”), not a different individual with different behavior.

We observed reliability professionals in critical infrastructures undertaking four types of resilience at their system level, each varying by stage of operations in the system:

Table 1. Different Types of System Resilience

  • Reliability professionals adjusting back to within de jure or defacto bandwidths to continue normal operations (precursor resilience);
  • Restoration from disrupted operations (temporary loss of service) back to normal operations by reliability professionals (restoration resilience);
  • Immediate emergency response (its own kind of resilience) after system failure but often involving others different from system’s reliability professionals; and
  • Recovery of the system to a new normal by reliability professionals along with others (recovery resilience)

Resilience this way is a set of options, processes and strategies deployed by the system’s real-time managers and tied to the state of system operations in which they find themselves. Resilience differs depending on whether or not the large sociotechnical system is in normal operations versus disrupted operations versus failed operations versus recovered operations. (Think of pastoralist systems here as critical infrastructure.)

Resilience, as such, is not a single property of the system to be turned on or off as and when needed. Nor is it, as a system feature, reducible to anything like a “resilient” herder, though such herders exist.

Why does it matter that resilience is a systemwide set of options, processes and strategies? What you take to be the loss of the herd, a failure in pastoralist operations that you say comes inevitably with drought, may actually be perceived and treated by pastoralists themselves as a temporary disruption after which operations are to be restored. While you, the outsider, can say their “temporary” really isn’t temporary in this day and age, it is their definition of “temporary” that matters when it comes to their real-time reliability.

To return to Table 1, herder systems that maintain normal operations are apt to demonstrate what we call precursor resilience. Normal doesn’t mean what happens when there are no shocks to the system. Shocks happen all the time, and normal operations are all about responding to them in such a way as to ensure they don’t lead to temporary system disruption or outright system failure. Formally, the precursors of disruption and failure are managed for, and reliably so. Shifting from one watering point, when an interfering problem arises there, to another just as good or within a range of good-enough is one such strategy. Labelling this, “coping,” seriously misrepresents the active system management going on.

Pastoralist systems, nevertheless, can and do experience temporary stoppages in their service provision—raiders seize livestock, remittances don’t arrive, offtake of livestock products is interrupted, random lightning triggers veldt fires—and here the efforts at restoring conditions back to normal is better termed restoration resilience. Access to other grazing areas (or alternative feed stocks or alternative sources of livelihood) may be required in the absence of fallbacks normally available.

So too resilience as a response to shocks looks very different by way of management strategies when the shocks lead to system failure and onward recovery from that failure. In this case, an array of outside, inter-organizational resources and personnel—public, private, NGO, humanitarian—are required in addition to the resources of the pastoralist herders. These recovery arrangements and resources are unlike anything marshaled by way of precursor or restoration resiliencies within the herder communities themselves.

There is nothing predetermined in the Table 1 sequence. Nothing says it is inevitable that the failed system recovers to a new normal (indeed the probability of system failure in recovery can be higher than in normal operations in large sociotechnical systems). It is crucial, nevertheless, to distinguish recovery from the new normal. To outsiders, it make look like some of today’s pastoralist systems are in unending recovery, constantly trying to catch up with one disaster after another.

The reality may be that the system is already at a new normal, operating to a standard of reliability quite different than you might think. (Imagine that wet season grazing areas were magically restored to pastoralists who already adapted to their disappearance. Real-time herder options would increase, but would the collective response be altogether positive now? That question can only be answered if you are first clear about what is the actual system being managed now and the operating standard of reliability to which it is being managed before the restoration.)

If you think of resilience in a pastoralist system as “the system’s capability in the face of its high reliability mandates to withstand the downsides of uncertainty and complexity as well as exploit the upsides of new possibilities and opportunities that emerge in real time,” then they are able to do so because of being capable to undertake the different types of resiliencies listed here, contingent on the stage of operations herders as a collectivity find themselves.

Or to put the key point from the other direction, a system demonstrating precursor resilience, restoration resilience, emergency response coordination and recovery resilience is the kind of system better able to withstand the downsides of shocks and uncertainty and exploit their upsides. Here too, nothing predetermines that every pastoralist system will exhibit all four resiliencies, if and when their states of operation change.

The above raises a methodological point. If I and my colleagues can come up with four different types of system resilience—forget about the empirically different articulations of resilience at the micro and meso levels—we might pause over how useful any catchall term “resilience” is. More positively, when using the term resilience the burden of proof is on each of us to empirically differentiate the term for the case at hand.

To summarize, any notion that resilience is a single property or has a dominant definition or is there/not there or is best exemplified at the individual level is incorrect and misleading when system reliability is at stake.

Principal sources

E. Roe and P.R. Schulman (2016). Reliability and Risk: The Challenge of Managing Interconnected Infrastructures. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA.

E. Roe (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure, STEPS Working Paper 113, STEPS Centre: Brighton, UK (available online at

I believe

. . .in a politics of complexity. One which you can’t homogenize or leave undifferentiated. A politics that reminds us what works is often at the smaller scale, where gatherers of information are its users. A politics that starts with cases to be analyzed in their own right. A politics that resists getting lost if scaled up. A politics where no matter how tightly-coupled the world, people’s personal stories are not as connected. A politics that insists if you believe everything is connected to everything else, then nothing is reducible to anything else, and if you believe both, then the starting point is not interdependence or irreducibility, but the kaleidoscopic granularity and particularity in between.

A consultant’s diary (longer read)

Out of the blue, got a call from Ray R. Haven’t heard from him since he took my class—when? He’s Director of Planning, County Welfare Agency, and wants me to help write the Agency’s five-year action plan. Haven’t dealt with issues since I fled the social work track and Kenya’s five-year district development plans.


Ray briefed me today. Got a briefcase of material.

Now for the cast of characters in this melodrama.

  • David M., Agency Director, on probation by Board of Trustees with its broth of politicos and micro-managers.
  • Agency has four departments:
    • Welfare to Work (Doris P, head),
    • Child Youth & Family Services (Rachel F),
    • Adult & Aging Services (Betty W), and
    • Workforce & Resource Development (Pedro X)
  • Amanda T. is Deputy Director, to whom Ray–remember the Director of Planning–reports. You’ll meet Tomas Y, Family Services’ chief consultant, in a moment.

David forced by Board of Trustees to have a long-term action plan. Who can be against action planning? No one is for it, except Ray and Amanda. Agency is one of largest in the region: Half a billion dollar annual budget, over 2000 employees.


Agency waiting room looks like a bus depot in the bad part of town. Private security guard opens doors around 8:30 am. Mostly blacks, Hispanics and Asians hang around in front. “Smokers and down-&-outers,” susses the ready-reckoner. Building is next to probation and courts, all Stalinist construction.

Walls look like they’ve been eaten off and then pissed on. We queue, eventually get up to functionaries behind bullet-proof windows who muffle what passes for service. Mine decides to buzz the outer door open. I sign in. I’ve interrupted the security guy chatting up at one of the females. He buzzes the inside door open, and I’m free.


Ray introduces me at today’s Executive Committee meeting. Rachel and Betty are burned out. Fleshy, pasty, pissy. David says not a word. Amanda waits until the others have had their say, and then wades in. Ray’s the only one who smiles. Most of the time I don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s all acronyms, but this part of the learning curve I’ve always liked. Ray and I arrange interviews with each department head, plus David and Amanda.


Went to my first meeting with the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup charged to work with Ray on the Action Plan. (I have to start thinking in CAPS.) The members are regulation manuals that talk. We’re all grim. Ray tells me later of another meeting, when they were trying to figure out what to call welfare recipients. Clients? Customers? Consumers? Hell, they’re all suspects, said the guy from Welfare Fraud.


I’ve just interviewed a guard at a death camp. You can’t imagine how cruel this system is to children, says Rachel about her Child Youth & Family Services department. 20,000 calls to the child abuse hotline a year, only 1200-1500 leading to children being removed from the home. We’re missing lots of kids. We don’t know what bottom is.

Her department’s to reunite children with their families. Reality is the family is the problem. She tells me the single best predictor of a foster kid ending up in the juvenile justice system is being reunited with the family. Some kids have been moved 40 or more times before they “graduate” from the system at 16 years old. Most families trained as foster care parents drop out early. Every foster kid in the county should get life-long psychiatric therapy, she says. Oh, and don’t forget they have more medical and dental problems than do average kids. Most violence done to kids is kid-on-kid violence. An 8-year old kid sexually abuses a younger one. What do you think happened to the 9-year old who committed an armed robbery, she asks? He was sent home. You can’t imagine how cruel this system is, she repeats.

Foster care graduates should be guaranteed county jobs, she feels, since they’re the creation of the county and have no other employment possibilities. Number of kids exiting foster care who are prepared to take care of themselves is negligible. She’s really worried about what’s going to happen once parents are time-limited off of welfare assistance. The Action Plan goal is: “Promote healthy development of children and families and healthy aging of elders that emphasize home and community-based services.” Well, I’ll be long retired before the end of that Plan period! For one second, she’s young.


Had trouble getting past security. Another meeting with the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup. One thing is clear from the meetings so far: Agency staff know what needs to be done, but they don’t know their clients. Contradictory?

If you have 20,000 calls to a hotline, but respond to 1 out 20, you know what needs to be done—more calls have to be taken seriously—even if you know nothing about who is being abused or doing the abuse. Plus who needs to know the clients, when all trends are getting worse. Next year there’ll be even more calls. The gap between implementation and results is so big, you can’t worry about results (i.e., the impact on the client), until you do something to address implementation (i.e., answer those hotlines).


Overheard in one of the offices: “There isn’t a week that goes by when I don’t thank God I wasn’t born black!”


Interviewed Tomas Y today. He’s Rachel’s hired gun to inject new energy into Child Youth & Family Services. He said a good deal about walking the talk. Interview neatly summarizes the Agency’s problems and proposed solutions:

In brief, the Agency is too

´           fragmented and departmental

´           centralized and headquarters-oriented

´           specialized and narrowly focused

´           focused on needs and immediate crisis response

´           client-centered

´           rooted to desks and offices far from the real problems

´           constrained by categorical funding; and

´           hamstrung by the employee’s union.

Therefore, the Agency should

´           provide integrated services

´           be decentralized and located in the neighborhoods

´           be more generalist and multidisciplinary

´           focused on people’s strengths and longer term prevention and recovery strategies

´           be centered around the whole family

´           have mobile units that go to where the problems are

´           have much more flexible funding; and

´           be working with community-based organizations under performance based contracts.

Tomas has no—repeat: no—examples of where integrated, decentralized, multidisciplinary, preventative, strengths-oriented, whole-family, mobile, flexibly funded place-based organizations have worked. There must be examples somewhere—right?—but no one here can point to them. In sum: All the problems, but not any of the solutions, are found in the Agency, while the solutions, all outside the Agency, haven’t yet been found by those who responsible for finding them. This they call walking the talk.

In the last decade, the Agency has injected into the county economy nearly $2.5 billion in cash assistance alone (excluding staff salaries). For all its hand-wringing about intractable problems, the Agency is a major player here.


The Executive Committee loved my first draft of the roadmap! Convinced them that the Action Plan should have two parts—a roadmap for the future and then the Plan itself. That way, even if the Board of Trustees or the Agency’s critics don’t like specifics of the Plan—what’s this on page 57, line 3?—they still can sign off on the Plan as a whole because they bought into to the short roadmap earlier.

BTW, remember the security guard? He’s been fired. Caught being sucked off. Ray and I speculate about this.


We met with Doris, head of the Agency’s largest department, Welfare to Work. Is upset with Rachel’s concern re: What happens to kids of parent who are time-limited off welfare. What are we doing worrying about a problem that hasn’t come up yet and may not even be a problem? We haven’t seen any evidence this is a problem. The whole point of Welfare Reform is that those on the rolls can’t depend indefinitely on the Agency. They have to fall back on their “families” and “communities” at some point. The safety net is gone. The last resort is the safe haven (no scare quotes needed) of community organizations. We no longer provide cash, but match people to jobs. How are the job groups working? I ask. Some 35% of those on the rolls don’t even show up for them. Maybe they’re already employed, she hazards. Or maybe she hopes I start a rumor to that effect.


Executive Committee had meeting to discuss Chapters 1 – 3 (includes “Goals, Strategies and Policies”). I’m always struck by how meetings rehearse all over again who the departments are, what are their problems, and why they can’t do what needs to be done. It’s Agency auto-suggestion enabling it to reconstitute itself daily. Result: There’s always twice as much ground to cover.


I’m told to reduce the Plan to a sentence that the Broad of Trustees can understand. A sentence. Okey-dokey:

The Action Plan’s eight goals promote, increase or improve the stability, health and well-being, security and learning, capacity building and access, independence and self-sufficiency, and, equally important, the participation and accountability of County families, neighborhoods, and individuals (including children, elders and persons with disabilities) in the planning, delivery and evaluation of services offered by the Agency and its providers.



Interviewed Betty, head of Adult & Aging. Department seems to have its act together, i.e., relies on community-based organizations (CBOs), contractors, encourages local capacity building, has new ideas about public/private partnerships. Feels its approach could be extended Agency-wide to the other departments. Two trends strike her: fastest growing segment of the population is the old-old, the over 85’s. Second, dramatic increase in services required for veterans, with younger veterans than in recent past. And here I was stuck in the Vietnam era. . .


Met again with the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup. Went through the draft Plan, goal by goal, focusing on the new policies and strategies for implementing the eight goals. They blew me out of the water with comments. From top to bottom and with apologies to Gregory Corso’s “Bomb”:


Ray presented the revised proposals to the Executive Committee. Decided not to submit the full text of each, but to introduce ideas for initial buy-in and formulate the way they wanted. The next meeting we’d submit the full text, with their changes incorporated.

The proposals weren’t savaged as much as I thought by the department heads. This worries me. Key proposal is the cross-departmental Family Intervention Team (FIT). Rachel felt that the FIT members would have to be new hires. We just don’t have enough staff. Doris dittoed the same for welfare-for-work. I’ll have to change the reference to “Job Group Leader.” A lot of these people aren’t Agency staff, but from CBOs. I tell her I got the info from her people in the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup. Sometimes I wonder if my staff know anything, she said.

Oh, oh. She’s seen the proposal’s implications, i.e., more scrutiny of her staff and its outputs. DOES NOT LIKE IT. We need random assignment of referrals to the Team, she says abruptly. Tomas says Team should be working on referrals made in light of assessments, as proposed. I’d rather have the support of Doris than Tomas. Is his support the kiss of death? Doris clams up. This is dangerous. We’re changing the titles from Client-Initiated etc to Agency Services Integration and Innovation (ASII) and from Community-Initiated etc to Community Services Integration and Innovation (CSII). Beats my favored acronym, PISI (Pilot Initiative for Service Integration).

Too late, we see that our overheads backfired in one big way. Only after meeting did that become clear.  Doris probably thinks the Team will be her department’s responsibility, notwithstanding the Agency-wide scope. Clearly not so in the text, but not clear from the overheads. Bulleted by bullets. Should have caught this beforehand. So, she’s going to brood for the next day or two (FIT isn’t fit enough). Too bad Amanda and Doris don’t get along. Someone’s got to talk to her, and David’s out of town.


By the way, the Executive Committee went word-by-word—WORD-BY-WORD—through Chapter 3’s goals, strategies and policies. When they got to my proposal for developing an authoritative website around the Action Plan and the social service innovations, Doris had the field. “Authoritative”? Please, let’s stick with simple English! Rachel piped in, Improved communications? 20 years ago we said we would improve communications, and haven’t done it yet. She beams, she’s retiring.


Ray has given up on the benchmarks and indicators of Plan performance. First, he had them in Chapter 3, where the new policies and strategies are discussed. The Executive Committee didn’t like them there, and frankly they broke the flow of the text. Then Ray put them in an appendix, which really marginalized them. Then he tried inserting them in the Chapter 4’s Management Plan and that didn’t fit either. So a section on specific indicators has been dropped altogether.

More important than benchmarks, to my mind, is the need to ensure multiple criteria to evaluate the Plan’s performance. I can see it already: Outsiders coming in to evaluate Plan performance at the end of the five years, and what do they find? “Performance falls far short of the Plan’s goals.” The Agency lacks baseline data, management capacity, political will (actually the Agency is committed to do everything), etc. It’s critique that writes itself. So I want to put some obstacles in that path, and one way to do that is to be explicit in the Plan that the criteria for its evaluation are many and different. The greater the chance, then, the Plan performance will be evaluated in favorable terms on some than on others. The performance record will be mixed, not totally negative, which is like life anyway.


Had final meeting with David today. He’s back and jet-lagged. We go through the draft chapters, hitting the new recommendations concerning policies, strategies and the innovation units. He again pushes his idea about the Agency facilitating creation and operation of different (some regional) networks of providers that would vary in terms of subject area, e.g., one network for providers working on substance abuse, another for mental health, and so on. He’s articulate, and he’s comfortable talking about nuts and bolts as he is about more abstract policy questions relevant to Agency’s long-term vision. He’s much better in one-on-one private meetings than in bigger ones.

Doris has been maneuvering behind the scenes. David tells us she saw him in the morning and said, Yes, she supports FIT, but she can’t possibly agree to fund it until her own staffing problems are solved. David sees this as reasonable. Ray doesn’t say much. I say it’s blackmail. I tell David she’s holding ransom a fifteen-person unit by demanding that her 60+ vacancies be filled first. The punishment she’s exacting isn’t proportional to our crime. David equivocates, but says he supports the key proposals and “will make them happen.” I leave, feeling irrationally hopeful that David’s meeting tomorrow with the Executive Committee on the four chapters will end the right way. As for my involvement, it stops here.


Called Ray after I got back from my conference. How did the Executive Committee meeting go?

Terrible, he says. Worse meeting he ever had. In fact, told Amanda he was back on the job market. What happened? Seems Doris had made a side deal with the other department heads that would effectively nudge Ray out of monitoring implementation of the Action Plan, leaving it to the separate departments.

In the face of this pre-emptive strike, David said absolutely nothing. Nada, fuck-all. Ray asked what his role as Planning Director when it came to the Action Plan. Why, Kathy said sweetly, you’d be helping us! Amanda was seething. After the meeting, she laid it on the line to David. He had to support Ray on this over Doris and the others. David had the grace to appear moved. Of course, he supported Ray and the Planning Director’s role in independently monitoring progress. Wasn’t that clear? Blamed his jet-lag. Amanda drafted an email to that effect and he sent it as his own to the department heads.

Ray’s still in shock. The only thing solid is waste; the only thing complete is disaster.

European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II

So far this play has two scenes. The second shows why.


Many policies, laws and regulations are cases studies in the failure to macro-design micro-behavior. Since this does not appear to be a self-correcting problem, such cases continue to need calling out. Consider the travails of the EU’s CO2 cap-and-trade system, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Always bear in mind the theory upon which the ETS was based is that the higher the price of carbon, the fewer the emissions, all else equal.

–Over a decade ago in 2005, CO2 emission credits were issued under the ETS, credit prices did initially rise, but it was realized too many credits had been issued when prices declined. By 2007 it was conceded that not only had too many credits been issued, but that coal imports into the EU had been rising at the same time. Credits continued to be issued, and by the end of 2009 prices were said to be too low to encourage investment in lowering emissions.

Around 2010, computer hacking, cyber-theft and permit fraud occurred coupled with the obvious fact that the low carbon prices were in part due to declining carbon emissions because of increasing use of renewable energy (in other words, success by other means). The recession following the 2008 financial crisis had a depressive effect on credit prices as well. By the end of 2013, the European Parliament had approved a rescue plan for the ETS, including a provision to delay allocation of a third of the credits—even though the market would still likely be oversupplied by 2020 (such was found still in 2018). The thought now was that the ETS should promote green technological innovation, not just carbon reduction.

–It will not do for the cap-and-trade supporters to counter: Well, what else could we do other than the ETS! We needed some kind of market, or things would have only gotten worse. Well, I respond, what you could have done was to search for those better practices elsewhere that infrastructure control rooms use in real time to meet environmental standards. It may be the case that some EU energy control rooms did just that, but who would know that from existing reports?

What other practices? Consider the example of “environmental dispatching” of generators in Austin, Texas to meet specific real-time emission standards (starting at around the time the ETS was under cyber theft). As described by David Allen and his colleagues, the municipal utility was able to maintain reliable electricity supplies while shifting its real-time generator usage in ways to better meet regulated ozone constraints. Why is such a practice important? Never once in seven years of observation did I see anyone come into the major transmission control room that my colleague, Paul R. Schulman, and I studied and ask: “Why don’t we use lower-emitting generator x rather than higher emitting generator y, given both meet market price conditions?”

The point is that opportunities for doing so exist, and not just in the U.S.


Most of the above, save for the 2018 update, was written several years ago. I agree with the analysis, but now see how to recast the story to push the implications further. (Any single recasting implies others are possible.)

This different storyline relies on (1) the notion of “policy palimpsest” discussed in the blog entry, “Blur, Gerhard Richter and failed states” and (2) a wonderful essay by Lydia Davis, the translator, which expands the notion of palimpsest for rethinking the ETS.

The upshot of a policy palimpsest is that any cur­rent policy statement—my above analysis of ETS—is the concatenation of prior policy arguments and narratives that have accumulated and partly overwritten each other. A composite argument read off today’s surface of a policy palimpsest reads sensibly—nouns and verbs appear in order and sense is made—but none of the previous policy texts shine clear and whole through the layers, efface­ments, and erasures elsewhere in the policy palimpsest.

The palimpsest in the case of the ETS is the massed narratives and controversies, past and present, over just what is better for the environment—a carbon tax, cap-and-trade systems, renewable energy technologies, a mix of these, some other hybrid, or something altogether different? The analyt­ic challenge is to read any composite argument, like the one I gave above, with the effaced elements made visible. Once you have identified what is missing from the composite but was in the palimpsest (no guarantees here), you have identified potential means to recast the complex issue along different lines.

I shamelessly appropriate from Davis’s essay to show how the palimpsest and composite argument works for the ETS. Start here. Since a composite argument is the concatenation of fragments of other earlier texts, the composite itself can be viewed as a larger fragment consisting of smaller ones. Viewing it so has two important implications.

First, the readers of the larger fragment must provide more of its sense-making. Yes, the composite above is assembled to be read as paragraphs with sentences that follow each other, each in turn with subject-verb-object sequences and such. But that meaning is not constructed sequentially and logically, but rather paratactically by myself and associatively by you, the readers.

That is, my above composite reads as if it were a chronological history of the ETS—”just the facts ma’am”—when in fact it is no such thing.  First, it is parataxis at work—that is, I have conjoined disparate statements together as if each statement were somehow equally important in the sequence I construct. Second, you the reader have to link these disparate statements together by associations that you provide, not me. At its extreme, such a construction is an instance of what writer, Mary McCarthy, said of Lillian Hellman, another writer, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

This juxtaposition of fragments that are read as if they were statements equally associated with each other means that the resulting composite argument is punctuated by interruptions the readers do not typically see. The analytic aim to make these interruptions visible to the reader: again to make evident what is missing in the current composite argument by virtue of all those earlier debates and points having been obscured or written out of the record  relevant to the ETS.[1]

In the above composite, I identified one of the missing elements and focussed on it, i.e., what infrastructure control centers were actually doing by way of mitigating emissions over the decade or more the ETS was floundering under the claim there was no alternative to it.

It strikes me that I also missed something bigger.

There are, conceptually, at least three types of fragments, small or large: that which awaits finishing or completed, that which survives what once had been finished or completed, and that which is (no longer) finishable or completable. You have a hole in the ground. In one version, it surrounds the foundation upon which a structure will be built. In the second version, it surrounds the remaining ruins of a previous structure. In the third version, it surrounds what is now nothing: What was there has rotted away entirely or disappeared irretrievably. Indeed, the third version could be cohabitating with the first or second versions.

I now think the wider missing element from the first scene of the ETS play is the open question about just what kind of fragment the ETS is. Is it primarily an institutional structure under continual or intermittent construction? Or is it the ruins left behind by techno-managerial elite and New Class of bureaucrats operating well beyond their capacities? Or is the ETS an hollow cypher for all types of environmental hopes that are still treated too unrealistic, evanescent or without substance? Maybe all? Maybe none?

What I did not see is that the question of just what kind of fragment my above composite is remains open. To cut to the quick, my Scene I analysis was to be a last word on the ETS, and that is a temptation policy analysts, including myself, must resist. The palimpsest is always being written over—consider the current EU proposal for carbon border taxes based on average prices in the ETS. There is no last word for the ETS. Instead, what needs to be done is to be prepared for the inevitable new interruptions and excavate what could now be better approaches that were effaced and rendered invisible in the past.

Principal sources

Davis, L. (2019). “Fragmentary or unfinished: Barthes, Joubert, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Flaubert” In: Essays One, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY.

Blog entry, “Blur, Gerhard Richter and failed states”

Allen, D., M. Webber, R. Williams, R. Prinn and M. Webster (2011). EFRI RESIN. The Interface of Infrastructures, Markets, and Natural Cycles: Innovative Modeling and Control Mechanisms for Managing Electricity, Water and Air Quality in Texas. A powerpoint presentation at the University of Illinois, November 11 2011 (accessed online on December 31 2019 at–.pdf&ei=WelsT8eJGI_YiAKUoPy4BQ&usg=AFQjCNHmaNNgr9oADDodLIrxKI-vgTR45Q&sig2=owWXq_iDzcMnHf8gCEPpHA).

[1] More formally, a composite argument is blurred not only by the way it conveys any argument (as if straightforward when actually interrupted and fragmented), but also by what it doesn’t convey—those elements of argument that are there but illegible as well as those that appear now interstitially as lacunae, non-sequiturs, slippages, caesurae, and aporias (fault-lines all) via the overlaying that is partial in both senses of the word. As such, no palimpsest is inscipted with the last word; no composite argument from it is indisputable. Each composite argument is allographic in the sense of having no one authoritative rendering.

Achilles’ heel of high reliability management

The weakest point in risk and uncertainty management by critical infrastructures operating under high reliability mandates is any assumption that the infrastructures aim to ensure their users need no longer worry about risk, uncertainty and failure scenarios for the service provided.[1]

Why? Because the considerable strengths of control rooms are at the same time blind-spots for society’s expectations of them.

Yes, control rooms represent unique system knowledge, but that real-time knowledge is difficult to convey to or distill for the public, let alone experts committed to checklists and protocols. Yes, their skills and requirements are so knowledge-intensive as to make control operators professionals in their own right, but that also means they cannot be expected to know the requirements of other control rooms with the same degree of breadth and depth. Yes, reliability professionals are virtuosi in managing real time (and it is true that professionals who cannot manage the short-term should not be expected to manage for the long term), but reliability professionals are the first to recognize the need for more long term planning and analysis.

Yes, the evolutionary advantage of control room operators to operationally redesign defective technology and regulation so as to ensure system reliability in real time is often under-recognized, but this does not make reliability professionals experts in altogether repurposing infrastructures when it comes to adding new services or instituting new infrastructures to provide the same service. Yes, control rooms are central to intra- and interinfrastructural reliability, but some critical infrastructures under very real mandates for high reliability do not have control rooms.

Yes, there is that sense in which a control room is like the weather vane taking all those lightning strikes to protect the house underneath, but that means control operators must be able to absorb the shocks and be protected in doing so. This protection—along with the longer term perspective and interinfrastructural oversight responsibilities—is what we expect from leaders, regulators and policymakers. Paul Schulman and I have highlighted control rooms as unique organizational formations and social institutions in their own right, meriting society protection, even during (especially during) continued attack.

[1] Oops. “As the economist Gary Gorton has put it, banking does for the nonexpert in finance what the electricity grid does for the nonexpert in electricity: . . .enabling most who ultimately bear the risk not to have to worry about it on a day-to-day basis. But as we discovered once the [2008 financial] crisis broke, it was not just nonexperts who had stopped worrying about risk on a day-to-day basis. Most professional investors had also gotten into the habit of not worrying about it either. . . Before we rail against their stupidity, we should remember that not worrying about risk is precisely what a modern banking system enables its customers to do. That the lack of worrying had gone too far is now undeniable, but it happened precisely because of how impressively the modern banking system works when it is working well.” (Paul Seabright in Foreign Policy accessed online on May 26, 2018 at

Public Policy Analysis, c.1970 – c.2020: In Memoriam?

–I graduated with a master’s in public policy studies from the University of Michigan in the early 1970’s and with a PhD in public policy from the University of California Berkeley in the later 1980’s. Pretty much at the start of my career, I promised myself I’d never be one of the WhenWee’s, that expatriate tribe who patter on about “how things were better back when.” So chalk up the following less as a valediction and more as an anticipation.

The rise in the haute vulgarization of “wicked policy problems” is only the tip of the problem. There’s little understanding, it seems to me, that labeling a policy issue wicked can over-complexify a problem that would otherwise be open to recasting into more tractable forms without loss of its obvious complexity. To put it another way, the gap is widening between the increasing sense of policy intractability and the sense all along that problems are complex and that this very complexity affords multiple opportunities to recast/redescribe/revise the problems more manageably.

–Two important misconceptions stand in the way of seeing the latter. First is the notion that in its early days policy analysis assumed problems were simpler and to be solved by our best and brightest. That is not how I remember my graduate training. I had the good fortune to have been a student of and worked with Pat Crecine, the founding director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies (now the University of Michigan’ Ford School) and Aaron Wildavsky, a founder of the now Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Two different people you can’t imagine, but one always insisting to his first-generation students that policymaking was complex, while the other was the last person on earth who would say policy implementation was simple.

Of course, there have always been those in policy programs and schools, early and late, who over-simplified policymaking and implementation. During my career, I’ve witnessed the 20-page policy brief reduced to the five-page memo into a fifteen-minute PowerPoint presentation into the three-minute elevator speech and now the tweet. What next on the graduate school syllabus: Telepathy? “The knowing look” in 10 seconds or less?

But none of this should surprise us. Just as calls for more localization are a response to increasing globalization, calls for more and more simplification increase as any field professionalizes and specializes, which policy analysis most certainly has done during a half a century of discipline growth and institution building. Of course, silliness comes with professionalization. I remember a then well-known policy academic argue that the “policy cycle” from policy formulation through policy evaluation was a signal advance over early notions of muddling through and incrementalism. You only need implement something you planned to realize that the cycle’s stage of “implementation” is itself a lethal critique of anything like a formal policy cycle.

–In fact, such simplifications don’t bother me as much as the over-complexification of policy issues into dead-end intractability. Which take me to the second misconception. A reduced form narrative runs like this: Since policy problems have become more complex over time, they must have become (more) intractable. Yes, of course, indicators are there: In the 1970s at the advent of policy analysis as its own field, a key indicator of what is now called “a failed state” was its inability to produce an annual government budget. That happens all over the place now in the US. What I don’t understand is why such is taken to be the signature that things have gotten into the bog-standard “intractably complex” when it comes to comprehension and analysis.

Yes, of course, Current Times are polarized and rapidly changing, but, please, don’t try to persuade me, a product of the 1960s, that Current Times are more polarized–other than in an echt numerical sense of there being more people now than then. Politics, dollars and jerks have always been the center of gravity of policy analysis and public management. I’ve never worked in on a major topic or in an important situation that wasn’t polarized or polarizing.

Nor am I willing to concede that experience today of rapid change differs much from before.

Yes, major issues and more rapid change go together these days, and here too there are more issues to be changing. But has there been a phase shift in the perception of rapidity changed? David Hume, the philosopher, was complaining about the speed of “instant” stock transactions in the mid-1770s, while a century early, complaints were commonly heard about how “affairs here change so fast that one no longer reckons time by months and weeks, but by hours and even by minutes’; “many new, unusual emergencies, such as our forefathers have not known”; increasing “with an inconceivable rapidity” and “in one century more light has been thrown on this science than had been elicited in the preceding period of near 5,700 years” (recorded by historians Istvan Hont, George Parker and Keith Thomas, respectively). When it comes to how public affairs are experienced, it’s still difficult to dismiss the part where plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

–It is true it’s harder to recapture that sense of policy analysis recasting difficult problems more tractably in the same way that policy analysis originally recast public administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I first started off. But this admission doesn’t go far enough to the wider truth at work here.

One way I think about what has happened to the policy analysis I’ve known over the last half century is to distinguish between (1) the discipline as taught in graduate schools and the profession that policy analysts think they are joining upon graduation and (2) the profession as it is actually practiced at any one time or place and the actual careers that policy analysts have across time and place.

The adult-me hasn’t had much time for (1)–it’s where the left is treated as completely irrelevant–and I’m quite willing to let it R.I.P. But (2) remains the domain of “it always seems impossible until it’s done” (to paraphrase Nelson Mandela) and, as such, is far too vital to qualify for anything like an In Memoriam.

–The vitality I’m talking about lies in the career being its own optic for recasting policy issues. It’s the closest we analysts get to reflecting on our practice and remaking the next steps ahead.

It is the career that reminds us that, if you will, the eye cannot see itself and that when we describe what is going on right now for the policy issue, “there is always a camera left out of the picture: the one working now” (to quote philosopher Stanley Cavell). To bring the camera into the picture is to recast the picture.[1]

For some the resulting infinite regress is a limitation; for me, it amplifies more to rethink. It’s over a career where it is neither optimism nor pessimism but realism to know when “always polarizing” added to “always changing” necessarily equals “This moment too shall pass, along with its cameras.”

[1] There’s a wonderful story told by the poet, Donald Hall, about how bringing such a camera into the picture changes it. He had heard the following from Archibald MacLeish about the actor, Richard Burton, and one of his brothers:

Then Burton and Jenkins quarreled over Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Jenkins said it was a bad poem: disgusting, awful. Burton praised it: magnificent, superb. Jenkins repeated that it was nothing at all, whereupon Burton commanded silence and spoke the whole poem, perfect from first syllable to last. MacLeish told me that Burton’s recitation was a great performance, and when he ended, drawing the last syllable out, the still air shook with the memory and mystery of this speaking. Then, into the silence, brother Jenkins spoke his word of critical reason: “See?

Risk criteria with respect to asset versus system scenarios

–Focus on an island in the western California Delta, say Sherman Island, and consider criteria that engineers rely on for establishing priorities with respect to reducing levee fragility there (the island’s surrounding levees are needed because its productive areas are considerably below water level):

  • Criterion 1. Levee fragility priority can be set in terms of the weakest stretch of levee around the island, i.e., the stretch of levee that has the highest probability of failure (Pf). This has obvious implications for collocated elements from different infrastructures, e.g., a very high levee Pf should counsel against plans to place, say, a huge chemical tank facility next to it. (You’d assume commonsense would commend this as well.)
  • Criterion 2. Levee fragility priority can be set in terms of the stretch with the highest loss of life (and/or other assets) arising from levee failure. If the levee breaches where most island residents live, then there is considerably less time for evacuation. Clearly, consequences of failure (Cf) are important here, and this criterion is about the levee stretch that has the greatest risk of failure, not just probability of failure.

Sherman Island’s weakest levee stretch, at the time of research, was said to be on the southwest part of the island; the stretch with the greatest loss of life appeared to be on the eastern and south-east side (where most residences seem to be). Other factors constant and from the perspective of Criterion 2, it is better the weakest stretch of levee is on the other side of the island (according to Criterion 1), so as to ensure more time for evacuation.

–A third criterion reflects the extent to which the island’s levee infrastructure is part and parcel of a wider interconnected critical infrastructure system (ICIS):

  •  Criterion 3. Levee fragility priority can be in terms of stretch that has the greatest risk to the entailed ICIS. ICIS risk of failure is not the same as risk of levee failure only, as stretches of Sherman Island levees are in fact not just elements in the levee system there but also elements in other critical infrastructures. For example, on Sherman Island, there is the levee stretch with Hwy 160 on top; there are also other stretches that serve as the waterside banks of the deepwater shipping channels; there is another stretch that serves to protect a large wetland berm (as fishing and bird habitat). If those stretches of levee fail, so too by definition do elements fail in the deepwater shipping channel, Hwy 160 or the Delta’s endangered habitat.

Criterion 3 compels the risk analyst to ask: What is the effect on the road system or shipping system or wetlands system, when that shared ICIS element on Sherman Island fails? For instance, if a stretch of Hwy 160 fails, road traffic in the Delta would have been detoured; if a stretch of the deepwater shipping channel fails, shipping traffic would have been rerouted to other ports; and so on. Note that in some cases the service cannot continue because there are no default options, e.g., the Sherman Island wetlands berm in terms of its habitat and fish can’t be “rerouted” were its protective levee to fail.

From the perspective of Criterion 3, the risk analyst’s question with respect to the greatest ICIS risk becomes: What infrastructure system that shares one or more ICIS elements on Sherman Island would be affected the most in terms of increasing the probability of its failing as a system, were those Sherman Island elements to fail? The answer: A levee breach anywhere on Sherman Island would increase the probability of the closing the key pumps for the State Water Project. That is, the Pf of the state and federal water projects would increase were Sherman Island to flood, because saltwater would be pulled further up from the San Francisco Bay into the freshwater Delta.

–In short, the three risk assessment criteria—others are possible—differ appreciably as to where risk analysts focus attention in terms of levee fragility: the weakest stretch (Pf) may not be the same stretch whose failure would have the greatest loss of life and property (Cf), while any stretch that failed would pose the greatest ICIS risk (namely, the probability that an ICIS element failing increases the failure of one or more of the constituent systems sharing that element). In the latter case, the risk not only for the adjacent levee system in the western California Delta (i.e., a failure of Sherman Island levees would increase erosion and seepage pressure on islands next to it), but also for the freshwater supply system from the north to the south of the State.

You would expect that calls for more and more “inter-organizational coordination” would have to be prioritized in light of these distinctions. You’d be wrong, worse yet for infrastructures whose technical cores are already so complex as to require the full time attention of their respective reliability professionals.