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July 27, 2006

Perplexed by Principles for Process Improvement

In a July 20 letter to "all employees" (file code: 1020), Forest Service Chief Bosworth identified National Forest System Deputy Chief Joel Holtrop as the "lead" for process improvement, and Jim Caplan as the new Process Predicament Coordinator. Then continued,

... To help us achieve desired cultural change, I have established some principles for process improvement and streamlining. They are enclosed with this letter. I want employees and leadership teams throughout the Forest Service to consider how they should be applied to any and all processes we currently use or plan to use in the future, no matter how large or small their scope.
Enclosed was:

2002 Chief's Vision for Process Improvement

"…[T]he WO, regional offices, stations, and areas require significantly less process … new process [are] integrated across program areas. At the same time, the WO, regional offices, stations, and areas provide field units with a variety of ... examples, tools, and other resources that reduce project-planning costs and timeframes. At the field level, the costs and time to complete project planning are monitored and responsible officials are accountable for their performance. Most importantly, we reach project implementation faster and at a lower cost, enhancing our public participation, collaboration, and environmental analysis."


  1. Eliminate processes whenever and wherever possible.
  2. If process elimination is not possible, improve existing processes by simplifying, eliminating delays, by shortening start-to-finish or process cycle times, and by shortening and clarifying directions and documentation or reporting requirements.
  3. Don’t start new processes unless they conform to the vision and reflect the capacity of the people expected to do the work.
  4. Produce all goods and services to standard, on time, and within budget, conforming to law and Congressional intent.
I was two ways perplexed when I saw the …PRINCIPLED APPROACH. First I wondered, To what end? What is this missive expected to do? I thought of Chris Argyris' book Flawed Advice and the Management Trap, and his earlier book Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning. Argyris stresses the pervasiveness and persistence organizational defense mechanisms, and offers advice on the difficult task of working toward process betterment and organizational culture change by facing defense mechanisms directly. Good stuff!

Argyris also warns against "unactionable advice," advice that looks good but will not lead to organizational behavioral change, or will lead to unwanted change. Touchy stuff! (I thought too of my own advice re: Process Predicament (attached below)). Then I thought, Oh well, we'll just wait and see what pops up next, as the FS continues it's journey that began as "analysis paralysis," moved to "process gridlock," then on to "process predicament."

Second, I wondered as to the "principles" themselves, and took liberty to reframe them:

Process Betterment Principles (Feedback appreciated)
  1. Continually monitor processes with an eye toward improvement.
  2. Always design processes with/by the people who do the work. (following Breakthrough Thinking People Design Principle (scroll toward end).)
  3. Eliminate processes when they are no longer needed.
  4. Design and build process (and directives) as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Here is my 6/2003 "process predicament" recommendation:

Process Gridlock Suggestion
Dave Iverson

Do we continue to operate our organization in an antiquated "parent/child" organizational framework? Do we continue to operate from a belief that running an organization always or most frequently requires use of power-over instead of power-with?

If we can answer yes, as I believe we can, why not undertake a comprehensive rethinking of our organization. We might begin with workshops or "inquiry sessions" for Line Officers, WO Directors, and Regional and Forest Staff Officers? The workshops would focus on how organizations function based on a premise of working with adults, rather than overseeing children?

Sure we have rules and regulations dictated by law and policy that emanate from domains "above" the agency in the US government that require certain things from us. Sure we have encumbrances (also opportunities) on "personnel management" different from private sector organizations. And so on. But that ought not to stop us from reevaluating our organization functions in light of emerging organizational theory/practice.

As I’ve done before, I recommend that you bring in Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Margaret Wheatley and/or Peter Senge. You may want to include Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot as well. Let this group suggest recommendations, on how to structure such inquiry sessions.

As the team is assembled, let them know that they are free to work independently or interdependently on recommendations to help you help the Forest Service begin a journey toward becoming better at adaptive management and civic discovery, in short toward becoming a better learning organization.

Alternatively, just go with Weick and Sutcliffe or Kegan and Laskow Lahey and see what they might come up with.

While you are mulling that over, consider the agency in light of what I’ll call:

5 Habits of Highly Defective Organizations

  1. Pretending that leadership is about authoritarian, "Follow me" or "Do as I say" behavior.
  2. Pretending that quality follows from checks and balances in a patriarchal or parental organization, with overseers at all levels and functions. Pretending that individual and therefore organizational behavior will self-correct to desired form if parent supervisors correctly tend children employees.
  3. Pretending that all can be reduced to rules and regulation. Pretending that the world is a simple place where order derives from rules and procedures where all can be structured and ruled accordingly.
  4. Pretending that general goals, etc. are always someone else’s responsibility—someone higher-up in the mythical organizational pyramid—ignoring shared responsibility in such, with different roles played by various actors. In federal government organizations someone else’s responsibility usually points upward – e.g. "The Administration" and/or "The Congress."
  5. Pretending that decision making is the stuff of rational players working together in a non-gamed environment, where rules can and will be sequentially improved and policy will flow, and be made better from those who oversee government organizations.
In resolving these five bad habits, consider 5 Leadership/Management Needs, recognizing that anybody who might think that any list of 5 or 7 is going to solve much of anything is certifiably nuts! Still, the list might prompt thought and maybe even some action.

5 Leadership/Management Needs

  1. We need to learn rites and responsibilities of leadership, situationally defined with much more attention paid to uses and needs for servant leadership to compliment other leadership forms applied situationally.
  2. We need to learn the deep meanings and uses of the word quality. We need to better understand the interrelationships among quality, quantity, and measurement of performance in meeting quality missions and objectives. Particularly we need to understand the role played by instilling a passion for excellence in all members of an organization and ceasing reliance on mass inspection, performance reviews, and so on.

    Instead of performance reviews we need to learn to focus on and organize around the stories we tell ourselves, and the metaphors behind the story lines. As we focus on “stories we tell ourselves” we need to keep a constant eye on improving both the stories we tell and our roles, rights, and responsibilities in acting-out our parts in the process of living through stories.

  3. We need to learn to distinguish between "managing the expected" and "managing the unexpected." We need to recognize that usually both are at work at the same time: While managing the expected, expect to be surprised! We need to learn to embrace a world filled with surprise and quit trying to force the unexpected into organizational frames (rules, regulations, etc.) suited for "the expected." (See: Managing the Unexpected, Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe.)

    We need to quit trying to tame politically wicked problems. Instead we should recognize them for what they are and deal with them in all their wildness.

  4. We need to learn that talk often precedes action and that in order to change our behavior we have change the way we talk. In particular we might start with seven changes:
    1. From the language of complaint to the language of commitment
    2. From the language of blame to the language of personal responsibility
    3. From the language of “New Year’s Resolutions” to the language of competing commitments
    4. From the Language of big assumptions that hold us to the language of assumptions that we hold
    5. From the language of prizes and praising to the language of ongoing regard
    6. From the language of rules and policies to the language of public agreement
    7. From the language of constructive criticism to the language of deconstructive criticism
      (Drawn from How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey.)
  5. We need to learn to distinguish between thought and action, between wishful thinking and realistic action in human organizations filled with all that it means to be human—rationality, irrationality, logic, emotion, games, trickery, honesty, dishonesty, loyalty, disloyalty, etc.
Undergirding our 5 Leadership/Management Needs is a need to learn to frame issues and problems in ways much different than we do, recognizing the interrelated, emergent nature of complex social, physical, and biological systems that enfold us. Also undergirding all five is a need to learn different decision-making processes better suited to the social-political decisions that we constantly face. We can no longer pretend that a "rational planning" decision-making framework will serve us well in today’s environment.

We need to better distinguish between "strategic" versus "tactical" versus "reactive" in both thought and action. We need to better understand the terms, and when and how they relate to our fields of thought and action. We need to reflect on how very much of our organizational behavior is reactive, even when cloaked in words like "strategic planning" or "strategic plan." We need to better understand how to employ the "w" questions into our thought and planning: Why? What? Who? When? Where? How? AND perhaps especially What if? A "What if?" focus allows us to explore domains untested and often unknown to us. It nudges us to think "outside the box."

Posted by Dave on July 27, 2006 at 12:01 PM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 19, 2006

Obsessed with Best Management Practice

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." If so, says Harvard's Robert Behn, then "best practice is the refuge of unimaginative ones." Behn continues, "Unfortunately, public managers everywhere are on a manic search for "best practice." Take a look at Behn's On why so many Public Managers are: Obsessed with "Best Practice" [PDF].

After exploring the pitfalls inherent in endless, and too-often mindless searches for best management practices, Behn challenges managers to ask two questions relative to BMPs, Why? and How?

Why? — Why this practice?

What vital (or merely helpful) purposes will we achieve by implementing this practice? What will the practice accomplish? … Implementing any managerial practice—good, better, or best—makes sense only if the practice will, somehow, help resolve one or more of the problems that prevent our organization from achieving our mission.

How? — How will this specific practice help resolve particular problems?

What is our cause-and-effect theory? How does this practice work in general—in the ideal case? And how must this practice be adapted to work in our particularly circumstances to help our agency accomplish it public purposes?

Behn concludes with, "For too many public managers, the search for 'best practice' has become a substitute for thinking."

Karl Weick has been thinking/writing on the subject for many years too. In Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in the Age of Complexity, Weick and co-author Kathleen Sutcliffe help managers sort out what is to be reduced to "standard" and what ought not to be. Like Behn, Weick and Sutcliffe want people in organizations to make sense of their lives and work by applying standards only where they make the most sense. In other cases, experimentation and "gut" are more the order of the day. Even in cases where practice is reduced to "standard," the standard must be revisited frequently to see if it still makes sense.

In all cases we must be very careful not to stifle innovation and ingenuity in our organizations. The last thing we need is to reduce ourselves to "gobots" or "robots" for bureaucracies that have standardized too many processes, sapping the lifeblood of their people.

Posted by Dave on July 19, 2006 at 09:04 AM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 18, 2006

EMS to the NEPA Rescue!

On Monday James Connaughton, Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, issued a Federal Register notice [PDF] of a "proposed guide" — Aligning the Complementary processes of Environmental Management Systems and the National Environmental Policy Act [PDF].

The proposed guide promotes EMS as a remedy to the governments' long-standing inability to "address the full range of ongoing activities (and products and services) … with the intent to continually improve environmental performance." And all this time I thought that was the intent of NEPA compliance. The CEQ has long stressed the importance of programmatic to site-specific linkages, connected actions, cumulative effects, and more.

One way to view the notice and guide is that CEQ is taking the next step along the road to better compliance with NEPA. Another, darker way to view the notice and guide is that the federal government is taking yet another step along the path of process gridlock. As we opined earlier on our Forest Environmental Management Systems blog, there are three EMS paths forward:

  • EMS buries the Forest Sevice—in process and "paper,"
  • The Forest Service buries EMS, or
  • EMS transforms Forest Service culture to adopt adaptive management.
Which path will be taken is still a significant question.

Let's pursue the latter path a bit. Adaptive Management is a remarkable idea, and stands a reasonable chance of transforming (for the better) both landscapes and institutions. The Resilience Alliance, for example, is dedicated to that particular proposition.

But there are serious omissions in the description of adaptive management in the "proposed guide," relative to the way adaptive management is commonly framed. In particular in the proposed guide, adaptive management is framed in the narrow confines of what is referred to as a "'predict-mitigate-implement-monitor-adapt' model." that "adjusts actions to foster desired outcomes and reduce undesired ones." Nowhere to be found is the 'surprise, uncertainty, novelty and ignorance' side of the adaptive management endeavor. This is a serious, perhaps fatal omission in the guide.

To gain a better perspective on the two-part harmony of managing both the expected and the unexpected, take a look at, e.g. Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, Managing the Unexpected.., Lance H. Gunderson and C.S. Holling (eds.), Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, and T.F.H. Allen, Joseph A. Tainter, and Thomas W. Hoekstra, Supply-side Sustainability.

Will EMS prove to be the saving-grace for NEPA compliance? Or will EMS prove up on an anonymous USFS employee's (who came with EMS experience from the private sector) remark that: "EMS is an expensive excuse to pay consultants to tell us what we already know." The jury is out.

Posted by Dave on July 18, 2006 at 01:50 PM Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 12, 2006

Why Can't We Learn From Our Mistakes?

In The Limits to Learning, James Montier says "The major reason we don't learn from our mistakes (or the mistakes of others) is that we simply don't recognise them as such. We have a gamut of mental devices all set up to protect us from the terrible truth that we regularly make mistakes." Don't we ever!

I have decided that in government, in large industry, and in personal endeavors people don't want to study decision-making in part or in whole because it proves much easier to pretend that they know more than they can, or at least to pretend to others that they know more than they do.

In either case, the lucky get rich and or famous, proving up on Kurt Vonnegut's line: "If you would be unloved and forgotten, be reasonable." PS.. The "unlucky" are just collateral damage from the systems, never to be remembered, never to be mourned except by the few who knew them personally and who also tend to be disgusted by the "systems that be," by the "powers that be."

Montier continues by identifying several "biases" that thwart learning:

Self attribution bias: heads is skill, tails is bad luck

We have a relatively fragile sense of self-esteem; one of the key mechanisms for protecting this self image is self-attribution bias. This is the tendency for good outcomes to be attributed to skill and bad outcomes to be attributed to sheer bad luck. This is one of the key limits to learning…. This mechanism prevents us from recognizing mistakes as mistakes, and hence often prevents us from learning from those past errors. …

Hindsight bias: I knew it all along

One of the reasons I suggest that people keep a written record of their decisions and the reasons behind their decisions, is that if they don't, they run the risk of suffering from the insidious hindsight bias. This simply refers to the idea that once we know the outcome we tend to think we knew it was so all along. …

Illusion of control

We love to be in control. We generally hate the feeling of not being able to influence the outcome of an event. It is probably this control freak aspect of our nature that leads to us to behave like [B.F.] Skinner's pigeons. ["Skinner's theory was based around operant conditioning. As Skinner wrote, 'The behavior is followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence modifies the organism's tendency to repeat the behavior in the future.'"] ...

Feedback distortion

Not only are we prone to behave like Skinner's pigeons but we also know how to reach the conclusions we want to find (known as 'motivated reasoning' amongst psychologists). …

We have outlined four major hurdles when it comes to learning from our own mistakes. Firstly, we often fail to recognize our mistakes because we attribute them to bad luck rather than poor decision making. Secondly, when we are looking back, we often can't separate what we believed beforehand from what we now know. Thirdly, thanks to the illusion of control, we often end up assuming outcomes are the result of our actions. Finally, we are adept at distorting the feedback we do receive, so that it fits into our own view of our abilities.

Some of these behavioural problems can be countered by keeping written records of decisions and the 'logic' behind those decisions. But this requires discipline and a willingness to re-examine our past decisions. Psychologists have found that it takes far more information about mistakes than it should do, to get us to change our minds.

In a more broadly framed article titled "Part man, part monkey" [PDF: 12 pp.], James Montier helps us understand how our decision-making errors can be traced to four common causes: self-deception, heuristic simplification, emotion, and social interaction. Looking for biases that limit our learning, Montier develops a broader list under his four categories, that he calls a "Taxomony of Biases."

Taxonomy of Biases:

Self-deception biases (lmits to learning):

  • Over-optimism (derives from Illusion of Control – people are "surprised more often than they expect to be")
  • Overconfidence (derives from Illusion of Knowledge – tendency to believe that the "accuracy of your forecasts increases with more information.") "Over-optimism and overconfidence are a potent combination. They lead you to over-estimate your knowledge, understate the risk, and exaggerate your ability to control the situation."
  • Self Attribution bias (prone to "attribute good outcomes to our skill," bad outcomes to "the luck of the draw")
  • Confirmation bias (clinging "tenaciously to a view or forecast," "looking for information that agrees with us," "thirst for agreement rather than refutation is known as confirmatory bias.")
  • Hindsight bias (tendency for people knowing the outcome to believe that they would have predicted the outcome ex ante.)
  • Cognitive dissonance (mental conflict that people experience when they are presented with evidence that their beliefs or assumptions are wrong. )
  • Conservatism (…tendency to cling tenaciously to a view or a forecast. Once a position has been stated most people find it very hard to move away from that view.)

Heuristic Simplification (information processing errors):

  • Representativeness (People judge events by how they appear, rather than by how likely they are.)
  • Framing [cognitive heuristic in which people tend to reach conclusions based on the 'framework' within which a situation was presented.]
  • Categorization {Iverson note: I suspect this one ought to be linked to Stereotypes.}
  • Anchoring/Salience (grabbing at irrelevant anchors when forming opinions)
  • Availability bias [causes people to base their decisions on the most recent and meaningful events. See also availability heuristic]
  • Cue competition […involves a comparison between the probability of the outcome given the target cue and the probability of the outcome given the competing cue. ]
  • Loss aversion/Prospect theory [Decision making under risk can be viewed as a choice between prospects or gambles. ]


  • Mood {/Affect} [Human interactions are how people share information and communicate emotion and mood. The cues obtained from others influence how one's own opinions. A shared attitude, or social mood is propagated.] See also: Social Mood and Financial Econoimics, John R. Nofsinger [PDF: 43 pp.]
  • Self-Control Bias (Hyperbolic Discounting) ["conflict between a person's overarching desires and their inability, stemming from a lack of self-discipline, to act concretely in pursuit of those desires."] See also: Self-Control Bias [PDF: 15 pp.], Chapter 14 in Behavorial Finance and Wealth Management, Michael M. Pompian. 2006
  • Ambiguity aversion ["…an attitude of preference for known risks over unknown risks"]
  • Regret theory [reflecting on how much better an individual's position would have been had they chosen differently]

Social Interaction:

  • Imitation [advanced animal behaviour whereby an individual observes another's behaviour and replicates it itself.]
  • Contagions [...cross-country transmission of shocks or the general cross-country spillover effects.]
  • Herding [Following the trend.]
  • [Information] Cascades [a situation in which every subsequent actor, based on the observations of others, makes the same choice independent of his/her private signal. ] See also: http://cascades.behaviouralfinance.net/

  1. Parenthetical references "( )"are quotes from Montier's "Part man, part monkey" [PDF: 12 pp.]
  2. Bracketed references "[ ]" are drawn from other sources as noted.
  3. Bias category hyperlinks are drawn from to Behavioral Finance or Wikipedia. If I could not find a suitable hyperlink in either, I found one where I could. If others find better hyperlinks (or if mine are off-base) please let me know.

See also:
  • Winner's Curse: "If we assume that on average the bidders are estimating accurately, then the person whose bid is highest has almost certainly overestimated the good's value. Thus, a bidder who wins after bidding what they thought the good was worth has almost certainly overpaid."
  • Gambler's Fallacy: "With gambler's fallacy, [people] expect reversals to occur more frequently than actually happens."

Finally, I always wonder how much sense it makes to create lists. Certainly it doesn't make sense if lists are all we have. In addition to Montier's work, the classic works I keep close-by on my shelf include:
  • A Primer on Decision-Making: How Decisions Happen. James G. March. 1994.
  • Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. Deborah Stone. 2001 (Revised Edition).
  • System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life. Robert Jervis. 1997.
  • Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Brilliant Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them. J. Edward Russo and Paul H. Schoemaker. 1989.
  • The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations. Dietrich Dörner. 1996.
  • Making Sense of the Organization. Karl E. Weick. 2001.
  • Managing the Unexpected. Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe. 2001.
  • How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation. Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. 2001.
I also keep a host of other books close by, from (or about) W. Edwards Deming, Peter Drucker, Henry Mintzberg, Chris Argyris, Donald Schon, Peter Senge, Margaret Wheatley and more.

Decision making, decision framing, and related matters are all the stuff of such interest and intrigue, "stuff" that seems resistant to reductionistic rendering. Still, there is something in our education and/or culture that drives us to lists.

As for "learning," Robert Heinlein may have said it best through his Sci Fi character Lazarus Long, paraphrasing: "People don't learn from the mistakes of others. They seldom learn from their own mistakes. Never underestimate the power of human stupidity."

Adapted from a July 7 post at Economic Dreams-Economic Nightmares

Posted by Dave on July 12, 2006 at 11:36 AM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 11, 2006

Global Warming Blamed for Increasingly Destructive Wildfires

Global Warming gets tagged for increased frequency and destructive character of wildfires:

Science News Online
Week of July 8, 2006; Vol. 170, No. 2 , p. 19

The Long Burn: Warming drove recent upswing in wildfires
Ben Harder

Major forest fires in the western United States have become more frequent and destructive over the past 2 decades. The trend has occurred in step with rising average temperatures in the region.

WILDFIRE WEST. Rising temperatures and earlier snowmelts have intensified forest fires.    AP/Wide World

… Western snow packs now typically melt a week to a month earlier than they did half a century ago, recent studies have shown.

The northern Rockies have borne the brunt of the shift in fire patterns. In 1988, midsummer infernos torched 600,000 hectares in and around Yellowstone National Park; 25,000 firefighters battled the blaze, which continued until that winter's first snows fell.

About three-fifths of the largest U.S. wildfires since then have struck the same region. Government agencies spend up to $1.7 billion per year on wildfire control, and annual damages sometimes exceed $1 billion.

To understand the factors behind this mounting hazard, Swetnam and three colleagues examined fire, weather, and snowmelt data from 1970 to 2003.

For each year, the number and total area of major forest fires closely correlated with average spring and summer temperatures and with the date on which snowmelt peaked, reports the team, which was led by Anthony Westerling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.

Since 1987, fires have burned 6.5 times as much area per year as they did between 1970 and 1986, the researchers report in an upcoming Science. The average temperature increased 0.87°C between the two periods, and the average length of the fire season grew by 78 days.

"Warmer temperatures seem to be increasing the duration and intensity of the wildfire season in the western United States," comments ecologist Steven Running of the University of Montana in Missoula. …

… Fire-control efforts need to be adjusted accordingly … says Constance I. Millar of the U.S. Forest Service in Albany, Calif.

Science Express
Published Online July 6, 2006
Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1128834

Submitted on April 17, 2006
Accepted on June 28, 2006

Warming and Earlier Spring Increases Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity
Anthony Leroy Westerling, Hugo G. Hidalgo, Daniel R. Cayan, Thomas W. Swetnam
[Abstract and link to PDF]

Posted by Dave on July 11, 2006 at 02:33 PM Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 08, 2006

Some Points to Ponder During Messy Ecological Policy Wars

Robert T. Lackey published nine Axioms of Ecological Policy [PDF] in the June issue of Fisheries, the journal of the American Fisheries Society. Lackey's axioms are insightful, and ring particularly true to those of us who have spent our adult lives tangled up in ecological policy wars. Here they are, in brief:

Axioms of Ecological Policy
  1. The policy and political dynamic is a zero-sum game. [... "The search for a "win-win" choice...is hopeless.... There are always winners and losers..."]
  2. The distribution of benefits and costs is more important than the ratio of total benefits to total costs.
  3. The most politically viable policy choice spreads the benefits to a broad majority with the costs limited to a narrow minority of the population.
  4. Potential losers are usually more assertive and vocal than potential winners and are, therefore, disproportionately important in decision making.
  5. Many advocates will cloak their arguments as science to mask their personal policy preferences.
  6. Even with complete and accurate scientific information, most policy issues remain divisive.
  7. Demonizing policy advocates supporting competing policy options is often more effective than presenting rigorous analytical arguments.
  8. If something can be measured accurately and with confidence, it is probably not particularly relevant in decision making.
  9. The meaning of words matters greatly and arguments over their precise meaning are often surrogates for debates over values.
Lackey frames "messy" ecological policy as follows:
Many of today's are politically contentious, socially wrenching, and replete with scientific uncertainty. They are often described as wicked, messy, policy problems, (e.g. reversing the decline of Salmon, deciding on the proper role of wild fire on public lands; what to do, if anything, about climate change; worries about the consequences of declining biological diversity; making sense of the confusing policy choices surrounding notions of sustainability).

Wicked, messy, ecological policy problems share several qualities:

  1. complexity—innumerable options and tradeoffs;
  2. polarization—clashes between competing values;
  3. winners and losers—for each policy choice some will clearly benefit, some will be harmed, and the consequences for others is uncertain;
  4. delayed consequences—no immediate "fix," and the benefits, if any, of painful concessions will often not be evident for decades;
  5. decision distortion—advocates often appeal to strongly held values and distort or hide the real policy choices and their consequences.
  6. national vs. regional conflict—national or (international) priorities often differ substantially from those at the local or regional level; and
  7. ambiguous role for science—science is often not pivotal in evaluating policy options, but science often ends up serving inappropriately as a surrogate for debates over values and preferences.
As if they are not messy enough, ecological policy issues may become further clouded by skepticism about the independence of scientists and scientific information. Much of the available science is tendered by government agencies, corporations, and public and private organizations, as well as myriad public and private interest and advocacy groups. Each arguably has a vested interest in the outcome of the debate and often promulgates "science" that supports its favored position. …
If you enjoy Lackey's sampler, here are a few suggested readings:
  • A Primer on Decision-Making: How Decisions Happen. James G. March. 1994.
  • Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. Deborah Stone. 2001 (Revised Edition).
  • System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life. Robert Jervis. 1997.
  • Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Brilliant Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them. J. Edward Russo and Paul H. Schoemaker. 1989.
  • The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations. Dietrich Dörner. 1996.
And for more from Robert Lackey, try these:

July 10 Update:
Lackey did an admirable job of stating his nine axioms, but I feel inclined to edit and embellish them a bit. Something like:

  1. The policy and political dynamic is a zero-sum game. [... "The search for a "win-win" choice...is hopeless.... There are always winners and losers..."]
  2. The distribution of benefits and costs is more important than the ratio of total benefits to total costs. {Efficiency should be addressed in designing alternatives—alternatives should be designed to be efficient, to do what they are intended to do without apparent waste—leaving the choice among alternatives to be based on other factors, including "distribution."}
  3. The most politically viable policy choice appears to spread the benefits to a broad majority with the costs limited to a narrow minority of the population. {Of course Machiavellian players will try to narrow the benefits to their preferred constituents while maintaining the appearance of broad distribution, and simultaneously distribute the cost to those disfavored, else distribute the costs generally so as to give the appearance of fairness.}
  4. Potential losers are usually more assertive and vocal than potential winners and are, therefore, disproportionately important in decision making and often used as important targets in political smear campaigns by Machiavellian players.
  5. Many advocates will cloak their arguments as science to mask their personal policy preferences. {Including government agencies, polticians, interest groups, ...}
  6. Even with complete and accurate scientific information, most policy issues remain divisive. {Almost never, by the by, is there "complete and accurate scientific information" in ecological policy disputes.)
  7. Demonizing policy advocates supporting competing policy options is often more effective than presenting rigorous analytical arguments.
  8. If something can be measured accurately and with confidence, it is probably not particularly relevant in decision making. {The analytical game played by many agencies, despite valiant attempts otherwise by well-meaning analysts, is to mask true value choices as choices varying in degrees of efficiency, thereby distracting participants into policy backwaters and eddies.}
  9. The meaning of words matters greatly and arguments over their precise meaning are often surrogates for debates over values.

Posted by Dave on July 8, 2006 at 03:10 PM Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack