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January 26, 2006

Blogging in Government: Catch the Wave

Andy Budd is a blogger in the UK. He recently shared his "take" on Blogging in Government (Dec. 8, 2005). Here are Budd's key findings:

  • …weblogs were great for internal communication and a way of cutting down the huge weight of email most large companies are drowning in.
  • …weblogs were essentially free (or very cheap), lightweight and disposable content management systems.
  • …blogs could be used for internal knowledge management, by encouraging key staff to blog their collective knowledge rather than keeping it locked up.
  • …benefits of blogging to management ... how staff blogs could help managers know what was going on in their organisation. Conversely, it would also let staff know what their manager was doing.
  • …governments could use external blogs to connect with the people they served. An external blog could really help demystify the workings of government, while at the same time creating a sense of empathy and trust.

Read "the rest of the story" for Budd's advice on prudent use and managment of blogs and bloggers:

…Blogging in Government | December 08, 2005

A few months ago I had the pleasure of being invited to talk to a group of civil servants on the subject of blogging in government. … [V]ery few people in the audience had considered using blogs as either internal or external communication tools. …

The talk began with a bit of an overview of blogging. What blogging was, how blogging evolved and the features of a typical weblog. I then discussed the ascendance of blogging from a minority geek pursuit to an important part of the countries media culture.

I talked about how events such as 9/11, the US elections and the war on Iraq had effected the popularity of blogging in the US, and how the recent UK elections and the London tube bombings had done the same in the UK. I mentioned how people were becoming jaded with the mainstream media and increasingly turning to blogs for news, debate and the ability to hear different perspectives and opinions.

I also talked about the motivations behind blogging, and conversely why people read blogs and participate in the blogging community. …

Next, I discussed how government could use internal weblogs. I talked about how weblogs were essentially free (or very cheap), lightweight and disposable content management systems. They were easy to install, and provided search and RSS out of the box.

Many government institutions get fixated on content management systems, both internally and externally. They will run lengthy feasibility studies to work out their requirements then commission a huge, all singing all dancing system that costs a fortune and doesn’t solve the core problem of needing somebody with the necessary skills to manage the content in the first place. I honestly think some organisations think that a CMS will just sit there and manage content on its own. If only that was the case.

Instead of this, I suggested that weblogs were perfect as small, ad-hoc CMS systems. Rather than running a lengthy consultation on the viability of a new Intranet application, you could simply install some blog software and see if your idea was feasible by actually doing it. If your concept failed, you wouldn’t have wasted lots of time and money on expensive software and studies.

I talked about how weblogs were great for internal communication and a way of cutting down the huge weight of email most large companies are drowning in. I suggested that department heads could set up weblogs to communicate with staff members, or committees could use weblogs to post minutes, to-do items and the status of projects.

I also talked about how blogs could be used for internal knowledge management, by encouraging key staff to blog their collective knowledge rather than keeping it locked up. After the presentation one individual told me that his job was basically to monitor newspapers and the media and let people know what was going on via email. This was such a perfect example of how an internal weblog could be used. Rather than emailing the information, you could blog about it, and anybody who was interested could subscribe to the feed. What’s more, all this information would now be searchable.

Next, I talked about the benefits of blogging to management, and how staff blogs could help managers know what was going on in their organisation. Conversely, it would also let staff know what their manager was doing. After the talk another person said that it would be fantastic if their manager had a blog because their staff never knew where they were or what they were doing.

However the thing I was most interested in was how governments could use external blogs to connect with the people they served. An external blog could really help demystify the workings of government, while at the same time creating a sense of empathy and trust. For the ministers and departments themselves, a blog would be a great way of getting important information out to the public, unfettered by the media. If blogging became popular, editors and journalists would subscribe to government blogs so it would be a great way of getting information out to the media as well.…

I finished up by discussing how government institutions should handle staff that blogged. I said that their staff would blog whether they liked it or not, and being draconian about things would just send bloggers underground. As such, I said the best option was to create a fair weblog policy that let staff know where they stood.

After I’d finished, I had quite a few people come up to talk to me about how their departments could use blogs, both internally and externally. It seemed that their was definite interest in blogging amongst the audience and it would be great if the … government really [made] use of social software such as blogs. …

Anyway, if you are interested in my presentation, you can download a my presentation notes as a [pdf]

Posted by Dave on January 26, 2006 at 09:57 AM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 12, 2006

Sometimes Post-Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk

There was a lot of news coverage this week of a new study from Oregon State University suggesting that post-fire logging may not be as benign an activity as often billed. See FSEEE's Jan 6-9 Forest Service in the News Archive.

{Jan. 23 Update}: A link to the now-published Science article

Here is one of the articles coving the story:

Wildfire-Ravaged Forests Hurt by Post-Blaze Logging, Study Says
Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
January 5, 2006

As U.S. wildfires rage, so does debate over how to help burned timberlands bounce back.

Some experts tout "salvage logging"—cutting down remaining trees and selling the wood—to help forests regenerate. But a new study suggests that sometimes Mother Nature does a better job on her own.

Along with colleagues, Daniel Donato, a graduate student in Oregon State University's Department of Forest Science, examined the effects of salvage logging in evergreen forests torched by Oregon's notorious 2002 Biscuit Fire.

Advocates say salvage logging is necessary to clean out burned forests and stimulate new growth. Opponents, however, charge that the practice opens protected lands to logging and alters the natural balance.

Donato's data show that some sections of the Biscuit fire's decimated Douglas fir forest are actually bouncing back much more rapidly where nature was left to take its own course.

"Are these burns regenerating on their own, or do they need replanting?" Donato said. "There is a wide assumption that they need help."

"There is a very hot debate over this, but there has been no real field data. The study is about going to a high-profile fire that everyone is talking about and finding out what's really going on there," he added.

Logging Reduced Regeneration by 70 Percent

The Biscuit fire was a half-million-acre (200,000-hectare) blaze in Oregon's Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Though controversial, logging was allowed in many parts of the landscape after the wildfire.

Donato's data, to be published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science, revealed some surprising results.

After the 2002 blaze the researcher's team documented early conifer regeneration in both logged and nonlogged areas. They found that salvage logging had reduced natural regeneration by more than 70 percent.

"That's kind of a shocker right there," Donato said.

The report blames the lower rate of regeneration on logging equipment and the dragging of logs, which disturb the soil.

In addition, the researchers say, woody debris left behind by loggers buries new growth.

Those same woody branches and brush can become fuel for potential future blazes. As a result, logging may have increased, rather than decreased, the risk of future destructive fires in the same area, the study reports.

Loggers can, however, clear away debris through prescribed burns and other "fuel management" techniques. Such operations are costly and are not always performed after salvage logging, so they were not figured into the group's research.

"The treatments can have their own effects, and that's something that we want to study next," Donato said.

No Single Solution for Forest Growth

Stopping short of condemning all forms of salvage logging, Donato says data from many diverse forest types are still needed. One management policy won't fit all forests, he adds.

Jim Golden, deputy regional forester for the USDA Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Region, agreed.

"I've done a lot of work with reforestation, and what they reported is almost intuitive to me," Golden said from his Portland, Oregon, office.

"Particularly in these very productive Douglas fir forests [such as where the Biscuit fire occurred], if you run a hot fire through there and you have enough trees that are still standing, you will get regeneration," he said.

"If you log a site, you will lose some of that regeneration. But what concerns me is the conclusions that people might draw from that."

"If, because of this case where a fire went through and more than two years later we logged some of that area, we were to conclude that post-fire logging hurts reforestation, that would not necessarily be the case," Golden said.

"In some places the best thing to do is nothing," he continued. "But in others you have to actively intervene on the property."

More research is needed to help managers better understand post-fire recovery and identify what should be done on a case-by-case basis.

"We've stepped up research in the Forest Service to deal with post-fire recovery and try to shore up what until now has been driven by anecdote and observation," Golden said.

Forest Managers Tied to Bottom Line

Of course, management decisions can also be driven by dollars.

"Weighing the economic value of the timber that was killed against impacts to the site is exactly what the land managers are required to do when we consider something like this," Golden said.

Recovered revenue from timber can be used to help cope with a mounting backlog of forest restoration work—an important consideration, given that each year seems to bring more wildfires and tighter budgets than the last.

"We no longer have the wherewithal to do all the work that we need to do in terms of restoration in the national forests," Golden said. "The post-wildfire restoration bill is growing each year, and we think that there is a half billion [U.S.] dollars of backlog work."

In areas where the Forest Service deems restoration work necessary, logging is often the only way to foot the bill.

Yet Donato's research suggests that in some cases dollars may be saved, and forests may be best served, by avoiding salvage logging and letting the forest bounce back without human help.

"Our data suggest that we should at least be open to the possibility that [forests burned by] big fires can regenerate on their own—even in places where we least expect it," Donato said.

Posted by Dave on January 12, 2006 at 03:39 PM Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

January 10, 2006

Michael Crichton's "Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management…"

Mickael Crichton delivered a talk recently titled Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century (November 6, 2005). Crichton summed up with a quote from Mark Twain, “I’ve seen a heap of trouble in my life, and most of it never came to pass.” Before summing up, though, Crichton works through a litany of forecast disasters that weren't, then says:

It’s no surprise that predictions frequently don’t come true. But such big ones! And so many! All my life I worried about the decay of the environment, the tragic loss of species, the collapse of ecosystems. I feared poisoning by pesticides, alar on apples, falling sperm counts from endocrine disrupters, cancer from power lines, cancer from saccharine, cancer from cell phones, cancer from computer screens, cancer from food coloring, hair spray, electric razors, electric blankets, coffee, chlorinated water…it never seemed to end.

… [F]or the most part, I just went along with what I was being told.

Now, if we are to do better in this new century, what must we do differently? In a word, we must embrace complexity theory. We must understand complex systems.

We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system---most minds, at least.

By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance.

Furthermore, a complex system demonstrates sensitivity to initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but the identical interaction the next day may yield a different result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will respond.

Third, when we interact with a complex system, we may provoke downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must always be watchful for delayed and untoward consequences.

The science that underlies our understanding of complex systems is now thirty years old. A third of a century should be plenty of time for this knowledge and to filter down to everyday consciousness, but except for slogans—like the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane halfway around the world—not much has penetrated ordinary human thinking.

On the other hand, complexity theory has raced through the financial world. It has been briskly incorporated into medicine. But organizations that care about the environment do not seem to notice that their ministrations are deleterious in many cases. Lawmakers do not seem to notice when their laws have unexpected consequences, or make things worse. Governors and mayors and managers may manage their complex systems well or badly, but if they manage well, it is usually because they have an instinctive understanding of how to deal with complex systems. Most managers fail.

Why? Our human predisposition treat all systems as linear when they are not. A linear system is a rocket flying to Mars. Or a cannonball fired from a canon. Its behavior is quite easily described mathematically. A complex system is water gurgling over rocks, or air flowing over a bird’s wing. Here the mathematics are complicated, and in fact no understanding of these systems was possible until the widespread availability of computers. …

An important feature of complex systems is that we don’t know how they work. We don’t understand them except in a general way; we simply interact with them. Whenever we think we understand them, we learn we don’t. Sometimes spectacularly. …

If we can’t even understand the basic aspects of our own systems, what makes anybody think we can understand natural phenomena, that are thousands of times more complicated?

Because they are.

… It’s this simplistic, cause-and-effect thinking that must go.

And for that matter, who believes that the complex system of our atmosphere behaves in such a simple and predictable way that if we reduce one component, carbon dioxide, we will therefore reliably reduce temperature? CO2 is not like an accelerator on a car. It’s not linear (and by the way, neither is a car accelerator.) And furthermore, who believes that the climate can be stabilized when it has never been stable throughout the earth’s history? We can only entertain such an idea if we don’t really understand what a complex system is. We’re like the blonde who returned the scarf because it was too tight. We don’t get it.

Fortunately, studies show that we can learn to manage complex systems. There are people who have investigated complex systems management, and know how to do it. But it demands humility.

And I would add, along with humility, managing complex systems also demands the ability to admit we are wrong, and to change course. If you manage a complex system you will frequently, if not always, be wrong. You have to backtrack. You have to acknowledge error. You’ve probably learned that with your children. Or, if you don’t have children, with your bosses.

And one other thing. If we want to manage complexity, we must eliminate fear. Fear may draw a television audience. It may generate cash for an advocacy group. It may support the legal profession. But fear paralyzes us. It freezes us. And we need to be flexible in our responses, as we move into a new era of managing complexity. So we have to stop responding to fear….
I agree, and heartily endorse this part of Crichton's message. I'm always glad to see yet-another champion of complexity theory, and have included Crichton as one since Jurrasic Park.

But I do disagree with all (including perchance Crichton) who use such reasoning to say that just because we humans have been clever enough so far to keep ahead of self-induced calamity, we should pat ourselves on the back and keep doing what we seem to do best—risking all for whatever strikes our fancy. Instead, I side with those who believe in attempting to apply the "precautionary principle." For more in this vein, and some criticism of Crichton's book State of Fear consider these:

Michael Crichton's State of Confusion I, 12/13/2004
Michael Crichton's State of Confusion II, 12/15/2004
PEW Center's "Answers to Key Questions raised by M. Crichton in State of Fear"
The End of the Global Warming Debate, John Quiggin, Crooked Timber,1/4/2006
The Official Michael Crichton Message Board

Posted by Dave on January 10, 2006 at 08:54 AM Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack