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G.B. Reschenthaler & Fred Thompson

Try your hand at two scenarios that suggest interesting range of conceptual and operational challenges.  Such exercises are likely to suggests that our insights about managing to prepare for surprises are weakly founded but may be framed perhaps in ways that provide grounds for research and experiment.

Toward Discussion Themes.

This memo has taken me in unexpected directions – off at an angle from the vectors of highly reliable organizations, and public trust and confidence I had imagined I would go.9  These notes are more speculative, more interesting (at least to me) and more worrisome.  Below in nearly outline form are several derivative themes that raise questions of concept, research and practice. Perhaps they can be part of our discussion agenda.

Theme One. Managing to be rudely surprised – for a hundred years?

In a sense, “crises management” is a contradiction in terms.  Surprises are not managed, responses to them can be.  From an institutional view, the challenges are not to be prepared to do things one knows, in advance, you will have to do, but to have capacities at-the-ready, so to say, that can be  combined in unforeseen ways with other capabilities, perhaps from other domains of civil society, as the parameters of the new crisis unfolds.10

A central question (of the conference) could be: What institutional conditions need to be assured so that rapid re-combinations of organizational capacity (and sometime added functions) can be realized?  What patterns of incentives would assure such possibly self-organized, flexible adaptation to rude surprises for an unforeseeably long future?11

The examples of sustained systematic attempts, say, in the U.S. to do this deserve renewed interest, e.g., to attempting to develop emergency response capabilities perhaps anticipating small surprises, and incipient crises.  We see this in some U.S. State emergency response operations, wild fire fighting experience, and the US Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) insistence that nuclear power plant operators conduct bi-annual, full scale simulations of disaster response decision-making with ALL the decision-makers likely to be involved were a power plant to have sufficient loss of nuclear radiation containment to warrant the evacuation of adjacent local communities. There is similar experience in the way the US Center Disease Control (CDC) goes about assembling the relevant agencies and non-governmental organizations to respond to the discovery of new communicable pathogens (e.g., SARS epidemic).12  Less admirable experience is found in the US response initially to HIV aids.

9 The original draft title included, “Reliable Behavior and Institutional Constancy”.

10 When the matter is framed this way, one senses that the search for best practices takes on an odd cast. Best practices usually refer to processes, etc., we have confidence in for they have been tried out repeatedly in similar situations, then distilled and used again.  Rarely if ever would this situation characterize crisis learning.

11 I note without elaboration the relevance here of our work on Institutional Constancy.

12 See also the related insights from the considerable experience in how communities respond to disasters. Some of this will surely be part of our discussions during the conference.

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