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  • It’s Mostly a Lack of Practice

    Posted by Shannon Love on July 4th, 2010 (All posts by )

    A lot of people are asking why the both the government and private response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is so inept.

    No major failure has a single cause but I think one major cause has been completely overlooked:

    Everyone involved is simply out of practice.

    The oil industry in North America has a staggering safety record. It’s been 31 years since the last major blow out. That time span means that no one involved today has any direct experience dealing with this kind of problem. Anyone around 30 years ago has long since retired. Those involved today have only theoretical knowledge of how to handle a problem like this.

    In the end, large organizations have to experiment and practice to find the correct solutions to any problem. Memory only gets you so far. It’s impossible to predict how well a real-world system will respond in actual conditions. Without testing, false assumptions creep into the system and stick in place like booby traps waiting to go off when the system is stressed. When faced with the next real-world test, those falsehoods jam the response.

    You see this time and time again in military history. When a military doesn’t fight for a generation, it often goes down in a pratfall at the onset of the next war. Entire books have been written about the initial failures of the assumptions of the pre-WWII era. Training, tactics and technologies thought up in the interlude between the world wars proved useless and counterproductive when the real war came. The first years of the war were largely a matter of throwing out established doctrine and improvising on the fly.

    A large-scale emergency response creates the same organizational challenges as a war. Everything the government assumed it knew about handling a large spill collided with reality.

    One thing they clearly failed to plan for was the synergistic effect that the interaction of 30 years worth of accumulated, draconian environmental laws would have on the response to the spill. Clearly, no one anticipated that laws that require environmental perfection would impede an emergency oil cleanup. Most likely, the people who passed the laws never thought about the laws’ consequences in an emergency, and the people in charge of planning for an emergency never thought about the consequences of bureaucratic nit picking.

    There is simply no substitute for empiricism. Organizations learn to handle problems by handling problems. No problems means no real competence in handling problems.

    There’s nothing magical about it.

     

    18 Responses to “It’s Mostly a Lack of Practice”

    1. Michael Kennedy Says:

      As a Congressman said yesterday about the new financial “reform” bill, “There’s three unintended consequences on every page.”

      The blowout, itself, is an unprecedented event in a very difficult environment. The attempted cleanup fiasco is another matter entirely. I would very worried about losing control of Congress if I were an Obama appointee in this mess. There will be investigations, subpoenas and indictments for the next ten years. Unless the Democrats hold on, in which case forget everything I wrote.

    2. david foster Says:

      I think there’s a lot of truth in this….I’d also add that the more unique an event, the more executive skill at the highest levels is needed to deal with it. If significant spills happened every few months, the coordination problems among all the various departments would have eventually gotten sorted through, and a reasonably effective response could have been achieved through ordinary bureaucratic administration. But when a unique or quasi-unique event happens, it takes real leadership and astute digging by the people at the top to root out what the problems are and get them fixed before it’s too late.

    3. Phil Says:

      There were major spills back in the 90’s in the Persian Gulf that were cleaned up a lot better than this. The guy who ran the cleanup effort there couldn’t get his phone calls returned by either BP or the Coast Guard. His business partner in trying to get the government’s attention was the retired head of Shell’s US operations.

      That’s not “lack of practice.” That’s malignance.

      As is all the turned-back offers of foreign assistance.

      As is all the paperwork that stopped the sand berms.

      It would have taken a couple days at the start of the spill to work out the paperwork waiving the regulations you’re talking about. The same way Bush waived the Jones act for Katrina.

      There’s no WILL there.

    4. Phil Says:

      Unless the will’s pointed in the other direction.

    5. Shannon Love Says:

      Phil,

      The guy who ran the cleanup effort there couldn’t get his phone calls returned by either BP or the Coast Guard.

      That’s because an organization has to know who to listen to before a problem occurs. What, are they supposed to just take calls from every random person? How do they sort out who to listen to and who to ignore? How do they allocate budget to even begin to investigate various solutions? These are all big organizational challenges.

      Large scale organizations don’t turn on a dime. Not even the military moves that fast much less civilian agencies. People assume they have everything covered because they don’t have any information indicating otherwise until they face real world event. When something breaks when faced with reality, they can’t fix it with a phone call.

      There is a lot blame to go around here but it is a very dangerous delusion to believe that you can always plan for rare and extraordinary events. Much of the criticism heaped on Bush for Katrina was based on the assumption that rescuing people in a transportation desert the size of Great Britain should have been something the government had nailed down for a long time. We’ll they couldn’t because it had never happened before. Likewise, most criticism directed by the military is based on the belief that wars can be planned in detail from the outset and run on a fixed time table.

    6. Shannon Love Says:

      David Foster,

      I’d also add that the more unique an event, the more executive skill at the highest levels is needed to deal with it

      I agree. Unfortunately, the current administration is full of people who have never done anything but run a marketing campaign. They don’t know how to process information about real, physical events or solve problems that don’t involve changing people’s minds.

      Obama has never once in his life had to manage any organization to deal with a real problem. You can’t talk to an oil well and a clever turn of phrase won’t plug it up. I think it telling that his first major action was to attack and vilify BP. He’s a one trick pony.

    7. Michael Kennedy Says:

      That’s because an organization has to know who to listen to before a problem occurs.

      Don’t you realize that the first question asked of a volunteer in Chicago is “Who sent ya?” What leadership skills Obama has absorbed came by way of Mayor Daley. I can remember many years ago when a fellow my father knew was sick and (of course) had no insurance. They called the Alderman’s office to arrange admission to Cook County. You just don’t show up in the ER if you can help it.

      “Who sent ya?”

    8. david foster Says:

      Remember the scene in “The Caine Mutiny” where the defense lawyer tricks the prosecution’s shrink into expressing his belief that being the captain of a warship requires no particularly high degree of talent or skill?..thereby, of course, discrediting this “expert” in the eyes of the naval officers who make up the court martial panel?

      I see certain similarities…

    9. david foster Says:

      See The Anchoress from about a month ago.

      I didn’t think I would ever quote Chris Matthews, other than possibly to mock him, but his point about the “idiotic cerebral meritocracy” is well-taken.

      The real problem with these people is neither that they are cerebral nor that they are a meritocracy—but that they are so self-impressed with their talent for manipulating words and images that they believe all other aspects of human activity to be basically trivial.

    10. sol vason Says:

      The American Way to clean up the spill would be to offer $1000/barrel for each barrel of oil removed from the oil slick. If that’s not enough, offer more.

      The President’s job would be to convene Congress in emergency session and pass emergency laws good for this spill only that would allow people the clean up the spill.

      The result would be like the Gold Rush all over again. Unemployed people would come to the gulf to get rich. The spill would disappear. Offer money for cleaning beaches by the acre and the beaches will be cleaned. Offer money to restore the wetlands and the wetlands will reappear.

      Obama believes that Central Planning is the only way to solve this problem. Central planning, especially when ever imaginable layers of government are involved and over a million bureaucrats, will need many years to reach a consensus and more years to agree on a plan of action. Our government was not designed to act quickly. We purposely designed it to work slowly. The path to tyranny lies in speedy government action.

      As Reagan said, “Tell the government to get off our backs. Let us do our jobs”. The American ways recognizes that that free markets are the best way to solve complex problems. Buyers do get what they ask for. They just have to be smart enough to buy the right thing. And if they buy the wrong thing, they have to honest enough to buy something better.

      A free market is like a genie in a lanmp. You always get exactly what you wish for. The difference from the old stories is that we get as many wishes as we can pay for.

    11. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Pete Wilson did something like that after the massive earthquake that brought down several freeways in southern California in 1994.

      Perhaps one of the best responses to natural disasters was the response from California Gov. Pete Wilson to the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994. One of his administrations finest achievements was the reconstruction of Interstate 10—a project that was estimated to take more than two years was completed in two months and two days after Wilson invoked emergency powers.

      Indeed, in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial Gov. Pete Wilson offered some sage advice to governors on how to cope with reconstruction needs. In California, Wilson used the broad emergency powers conferred to him to dismiss onerous rules and regulations, in effect bypassing procedural hurdles to get construction up and moving. Second, the governor used incentives to get contractors to accelerate their performance. Contractors who submitted bids had to agree not only to the cost, but the completion date as well. Furthermore, the contract called for stiff fines for every day the contractor was late, and equally large bonuses for early delivery. As the governor notes, “the winning bidder, C.C. Myers, Inc., put on three shifts that worked 24/7…Myers made more on the bonus than they did on the bid.”[1] Wilson adds that the additional investment was well worth it given the restoration of critical infrastructure years before it otherwise would have been completed.

      This an example very much like your suggestion.

    12. Shannon Love Says:

      Michael Kennedy,

      Don’t you realize that the first question asked of a volunteer in Chicago is “Who sent ya?”

      I think its more of a matter of “who the hell are you?” and “who do you need to talk to?” I’ve been involved in programming for information management of large corporations and the amount and diversity of information that they have to deal with is staggering. People who haven’t dealt with this issue have no conception of the scale of the information challenge.

      Phil said, “The guy who ran the cleanup effort there couldn’t get his phone calls returned by either BP or the Coast Guard. ” You just can’t call up a number at a major organization and expect to hit someone who can act on what you know. Just finding the right person to talk to is a major challenge. For the people at the top of the organizations, everyone is trying to talk to them at once in a crisis and they have to aggressively filter. Without planning, its very hard to organizationally process novel information when everything is going to hell.

      It’s quite common in all organizations for someone somewhere to have some information that in hindsight was utterly critical to preventing or resolving a crisis yet the organization just couldn’t get the information to where it needed to be.

      This is why planning and testing is so important. Once the fecal matter hits the ventilation impeller it’s to late. The intensity of the crisis itself along with its novel nature, jams up the information flow.

      This is why the military is so fanatical about order and chain of command. The entire organization of the military is built around obtaining, filtering and routing information. When someone finds out something, they’ve got to have a clear, predefined understanding of who to send the information to otherwise the info does no good. The biggest military failures are usually linked to the inability of one group in to communicate with another. Nothing clears up communication like failure in a shooting war.

      I just don’t think there is a way to really plan for rare, large scale disasters. Or rather you can plan but you can’t really test those plans until a real event occurs.

    13. Phil Says:

      Sol wrote:

      The American Way to clean up the spill would be to offer $1000/barrel for each barrel of oil removed from the oil slick. If that’s not enough, offer more.

      In order to pull the oil out of the water, you have to send the cleaned water back into the ocean, which violates the Clean Water Act.

      Shannon wrote:

      Phil said, “The guy who ran the cleanup effort there couldn’t get his phone calls returned by either BP or the Coast Guard. ” You just can’t call up a number at a major organization and expect to hit someone who can act on what you know. Just finding the right person to talk to is a major challenge. For the people at the top of the organizations, everyone is trying to talk to them at once in a crisis and they have to aggressively filter. Without planning, its very hard to organizationally process novel information when everything is going to hell.

      His partner in this situation was the former head of Shell’s US division; that should have been sufficient contacts to break through the bureaucracy, if the bureaucracy were interested.

      Look, when Obama _wants_ to do something, like put us another couple trillion dollars in debt, he’s amazingly competent and effective. When he wants to use the spill to shut down all offshore exploration in Louisiana, _indefinitely_, he’s able to do that, and suddenly competent. To suddenly assume that he’s merely a raging incompetent at this thing he evidently doesn’t want to do anyway is too kind.

    14. sol vason Says:

      Key to my argument is that the president must convene an emergency session to reverse all the laws that hinder the cleanup. However, these emergency laws would exp[ire when the cleanup is completed.

      “The President’s job would be to convene Congress in emergency session and pass emergency laws good for this spill only that would allow people the clean up the spill.”

      As everybody knows the EPA prevents skimmers from operating,
      the Coast Guard prevents people from getting into boats, the ICE prevents people from leaving the US or entering the US because the spill is not in the US, Customs control has erected barriers, labor laws prevent foreigners from working on the spill, martitime laws prevent foreign ships from US waters and the coast gaurd prevents US ships from entering these waters, and the department of education is witholding approval of vital education programs. Plus there are state laws and local laws.

    15. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Bureaucracies tend to operate on the principle of, If it is not expressly authorized, it is forbidden. It takes a powerful leader who is willing to take on the bureaucracy to get things done quickly. That’s why I brought up Wilson, who is a bit of an SOB but he did get that job done.

      I’m not sure Obama cares that much about the spill and its consequences. His allies in the media are minimizing his failures and the Gulf coast states did not vote for him. I think he cares far more about his Cap & Trade bill. That is power. The EPA is doing it lawlessly but that will end with a Republican Congress. They can just defund EPA if they have guts enough.

      Don’t you realize that the first question asked of a volunteer in Chicago is “Who sent ya?”

      I think its more of a matter of “who the hell are you?” and “who do you need to talk to?”

      I was not referring to a private company but to the bureaucracy that is staffed by “soldiers” in a corrupt administration. My best friend in high school ended up working for the Parks Administration. I don’t think he did much and he died young, probably from alcohol. We were friends from the 4th grade but we really lost touch when I left and he got into the Daley bureaucracy. The “Godfather” is still the best way to understand what is going on. My sister still lives in Chicago and she has many stories. LIke her son being beaten up by the son of a police lieutenant in a fast food restaurant for no reason. The kid was then interrogated in the ER by a policemen who strongly implied the 16 year old attacked the 24 year old aggressor. Ironically, my nephew was also a policeman’s son.

      Maybe the faculty member level of society doesn’t see this but I was from a lower middle class family in Chicago and I saw plenty. I once explained to a cousin why I had not retuned to Chicago after my training. I had to explain to him that even medical practice was corrupt with the fee splitting that went back to John B Murphy at the turn of the century. It’s just life in Chicago.

    16. Walt Gottesman Says:

      Dr. Kennedy,

      You wrote:

      “…medical practice was corrupt with the fee splitting that went back to John B Murphy at the turn of the century.”

      Dr. Loyal Davis, in his biography of J.B. Murphy, Stormy Petrel of American Surgery, wrote that the Chicago Medical Society was annoyed with J.B. because he came out against fee-splitting rather than support unity in the medical profession.

      This is footnoted on page 84 of American Medicine and the Public Interest by Rosemary Stevens, which is online at Google Books.

      Do you have a different take on this?

      My wife (of 35 years) is a Murphy. J.B is one of her great-uncles. I’ve been collecting articles about him for years for her, her siblings and cousins. Any further info you may have would be appreciated.

    17. Paul Milenkovic Says:

      I posted this on another thread, but there is a one-word answer to what is happening.

      Bilandic

    18. setbit Says:

      “Any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice.”

      I see this acted out more and more. The federal government’s handling of Issue X is so perversely incompetent that even those who aren’t normally conspiracy-minded start wondering aloud if perhaps all the bungling is deliberate.

      The Bush administration managed to pull a few of these pratfalls, but in those cases it was hard (for me at least) to distinguish between real screw-ups and the self-serving “we told you so” harping of the media.

      Obama, however, is some kind of a Zen master at eliciting the response, “It’s almost like he’s doing it on purpose.” Is he a sort of idiot savant at undermining freedom and free enterprise, with no real grasp of what he’s doing, or is he a James Bond villain?

      My view of human nature says that the former is (almost) certainly the case, but I certainly can’t say for sure. And I doubt if Obama himself could tell you the full truth of his own motivations, even if he were inclined to do so.

      But it also stands to reason that at least some of the figures in the background giving him nudges do understand the true consequences of their actions.