Ports in a Storm: Public Management in a Turbulent World

Ports in a Storm: Public Management in a Turbulent World

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by John D. Donahue

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In Ports in a Storm a team of Harvard Kennedy School scholars focus diverse conceptual lenses on a single high-stakes management task—enhancing port security across the United States. Their aims are two: to understand how a public manager might confront that complex undertaking, and to explore the similarities, differences, and complementarities of

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In Ports in a Storm a team of Harvard Kennedy School scholars focus diverse conceptual lenses on a single high-stakes management task—enhancing port security across the United States. Their aims are two: to understand how a public manager might confront that complex undertaking, and to explore the similarities, differences, and complementarities of their alternative approaches to public management.

The book takes as its pivot point the singular case of U.S. Coast Guard Captain Suzanne Englebert and her leadership of efforts to secure America's ports after the September 11 attacks. The Coast Guard had always been responsible for securing America's ports and coastline. But now it was tasked with safeguarding these critical, complex, and vulnerable assets during a time of war, a job it clearly could not handle alone.

Ports in a Storm considers the monumental challenge of driving rapid change in a complex system involving hundreds of private organizations and scores of government agencies with their operations intricately intertwined. The book examines Englebert's actions from varied conceptual vantage points, sometimes critiquing questionable calls but more often celebrating her initiative, creativity, persistence, and skill.

The authors use the Coast Guard episode as a testing ground for the eclectic intellectual constructs they have been developing to guide public managers. Instead of starting with theory and searching for examples that fit, they begin with the concrete and then harness scholarship to the service of better practice. And rather than mimic management principles from the business world, they tailor their approach to the very different challenges of managing in a public sector context. The volume allows readers in both the scholarly and practical worlds to see how the theories measure up.

Contributors, including the two volume editors, are Robert D. Behn, John D. Donahue, Archon Fung, Stephen Goldsmith, Elaine Kamarck, Herman B. Leonard, Mark H. Moore, Malcolm K. Sparrow, Pamela Varley, and Richard Zeckhauser.

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Brookings Institution Press and Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
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Ports in a Storm

Public Management in a Turbulent World


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ISBN: 978-0-8157-2238-0

Chapter One

Introduction: On Management and Metaphor

Metaphors shape and constrain our thinking. We navigate our symbol-ridden, abstraction-drenched civilization using a brain that evolved to escort our ancestors through a bluntly concrete world. The human mind, doing the best it can in a job to which it's not entirely suited, "couches abstract concepts in concrete terms," as the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker puts it. Thirty-five thousand years ago a Cro-Magnon would have used the equivalent of the word went to describe the trajectory of a child toddling from her mother to her father. The modern sentence, The traveler went from Istanbul to Paris, is pretty much the same thing, scaled up. But the sentence, The meeting went from 3:00 to 4:00, is something else entirely, repurposing language that describes concrete motion through space to signify abstract transit through time. Pinker suggests that "a handful of concepts about places, paths, motion, agency, or causation underlie the literal or figurative meanings of tens of thousands of words or constructs." Thus our choice is not whether to think metaphorically—there's no other option; we're simply wired that way—but rather what metaphors will prove most fruitful.

Metaphor and Management

So what sorts of metaphors might we apply to the challenge that a public manager encounters when attempting to use the resources she commands to create public value? Woodrow Wilson's classic dichotomy between policy (properly the task of elected politicians) and administration (the work of unelected administrators) suggests a mechanical—or perhaps more precisely a robotic—metaphor. Decisions made by duly authorized political officials control the actions of administrators, at least when the mechanism is working as it should, as rigidly as instructions encoded in software control the actions of an industrial robot. The implementers exercise little discretion on their own, and the quality of their performance is strictly a function of how accurately they interpret, and how efficiently and fairly they put into effect, the instructions they receive.

The Wilsonian decision/delivery divide, and thus the mechanical metaphor that once came unbidden to many minds when thinking about public managers, have lost considerable ground in recent decades. It is obvious even to casual observers that neither politicians nor administrators are as conscious of their cleanly demarcated roles, nor as disciplined about staying in their appointed lanes, as the Wilsonian image requires. Elected officials trespass into administrative terrain—requiring or forbidding this or that procedural tactic—and, even more chronically, neglect to complete their assigned work of deciding. Instead of resolving empirical disagreements and normative disputes to forge workable mandates, they paper over their differences by issuing superficially attractive but incoherent and incomplete policy directives, which compel administrators, willingly or not, to take up the decisionmaking work left undone.

And even when politicians are able to reach consensus on mandates, they often find it impossible, inadvisable, or both to seek full control over administrators. The context within which a policy is implemented is rarely if ever entirely predictable, or even entirely describable, in advance. Cause-and-effect relationships are seldom sufficiently determinative to obviate the need for continual adjustment during the implementation process. So either political decisionmakers have to hover over implementers, available for continuous consultation. Or robotic implementers must receive their instructions in the form of infinitely nested tangles of if/then contingencies. Or the norm of lockstep, discretion-free fidelity on implementers' part has to yield and, with it, the mechanical metaphor.

Unfortunately, the erosion of this metaphor leaves citizens, politicians, and managers unsettled precisely in areas where they would like to be certain. It is clear that we want government to act with a high degree of political responsiveness and legitimacy and also, no less important, with a high degree of efficiency and effectiveness. The mechanical metaphor divided the desiderata, assigning each to a specialized component of the government, and thus offered reassurance that both ambitions could be served. But if elected representatives cannot construct a coherent, articulate we from the Babel of separate, self-interested voices—and thus cannot give administrators clear guides to action—how can the twin goals of legitimacy and efficiency be advanced?

An alternative metaphor much invoked in contemporary scholarship on public policy (generally invoked implicitly, as metaphors tend to be) emphasizes skillful institutional draftsmanship—choosing from a diverse catalog of organizational models and structuring relationships among them in ways that (in a frequently invoked institutional imperative) "get the incentives right." The implicit metaphor here is not so much mechanical as architectural. A policy goal is set—and many modern writers are less fastidious than Wilson on the question of by whom, implicitly or explicitly letting legislatures, courts, participatory gatherings, or academic experts fill this role—by desiderata derived from philosophy, economics, sociology, or another source of normative wisdom. Achievement of those objectives depends on selecting prudently from the various tools of government to mobilize whatever resources are required to accomplish the task and align motives in ways that induce each actor to contribute its required element to the overall enterprise. Policy draftsmen, who may or may not be elected officials, order up the components their blueprint requires—be they administrative agencies, tax preferences, regulatory codes, tort rules, or financial incentives—to be assembled into a purpose-built construct.

The architectural metaphor invites thought about how different tools of government can be used to alter a broad social production system by redistributing resources, rights, and responsibilities not only across government organizations but also across social sectors. Such an approach is rarely without relevance, and sometimes—particularly when a mission is at once urgent, well-defined, and novel—it is precisely apt. The Franklin D. Roosevelt administration's series of New Deal creations for responding to the Great Depression fit this model. So did the large-scale government investment to develop the applied sciences that built the agriculture and mining industries of the country at the end of the nineteenth century. And so does the campaign launched through the 2009 stimulus legislation to promote electronic health record systems to reduce errors, increase quality, and reduce costs in the health care domain. What makes the architectural metaphor interesting and challenging is that it accepts the idea that the ideal arrangement for accomplishing an envisaged goal will rarely be available. The inventory of components on hand is usually inadequate to realize each detail of any new policy blueprint. As actors—some within government, some wholly outside it—make their responses to the architectural arrangements, they and the architects themselves make discoveries (both good news and bad) about the boundaries of the possible. Together, they find new means, and sometimes even new purposes, for collective undertakings.

The Navigational Metaphor

Without dismissing the frequent relevance and utility of the architectural metaphor, we posit that an even more fruitful image—and one consistent with the scholarly work and professional worldview of many of our Kennedy School colleagues—is neither mechanical nor architectural but rather navigational. (The navigational theme, of course, also comports well with the central example of this book and its Coast Guard heroine.) The image we have in mind is not so much fully modern, GPS-driven navigation, which can itself fit the mechanical metaphor, as (if readers will allow us a bit of historical romance) the golden age of sail, when a captain gliding out of home harbor could anticipate weeks without landfall and months without fresh orders.

This is not to suggest, by any means, mere meandering. Every voyage had its purpose, whether martial or commercial: harvest whales, harass enemy shipping, transport trade goods, seek out new routes, seize territory. But the haze of uncertainty that surrounded each mission at its outset, the impossibility of predicting and programming for each impediment or opportunity, and the infeasibility of consulting authorities at home to resolve each choice as it arose meant that the captain had to wield great discretion. His task was to assess, day by day, his current situation and to choose the route with the best odds of advancing his mission. The modern public manager's situation is similar, in several ways, to that of the wind-driven mariner.

Imprecise Mandates with Retrospective Accountability

Lockstep adherence to advance instructions is no reasonable recipe for accountability when circumstances are fundamentally unpredictable. But that doesn't mean a mariner—or a manager—is free from accountability. At the end of a voyage, the captain of a sailing ship owed a reckoning to his superiors; the admiralty, if a warship; the owners, if a merchant vessel. Literal fidelity to orders was no reasonable touchstone; the orders that were issued long ago, before first weighing anchor, were understood by all concerned to be incomplete and fallible guides to action.

Instead, the ship captain would be judged on his ability to advance the mission he had been given in the face of the opportunities and obstacles that he later encountered. How wisely did he use his discretion, amid a sea of surprises, to advance his principals' interests? So, too, most public managers—at least those with any appreciable degree of seniority—are more accountable for results than for doing precisely what they're told. Legislation, regulations, instructions from superiors, and other embodiments of the public's mandate are inevitably flawed guides to action. A declaration like, "I followed orders but obstacles intruded," is rarely, if ever, an adequate response when called to account by superiors, the press, or the public at large.

Path Dependency

Actions undertaken and events encountered in the past both define the present and bound the future. As a sailing captain pondered what course to plot, his options were constrained by the trajectory that brought him to his current point. Can he accelerate his journey by steering for a latitude where the winds blow fiercely? It depends on whether his sails are new and sturdy or tattered from heavy use since the last refitting. Can he transit an exposed strait fast enough to dodge a looming storm? Not if his hull is encrusted with barnacles and weeds accumulated over the course of the voyage to date. Can he risk encountering an enemy and facing a fight? It depends on whether his crew has been tempered and disciplined, or traumatized and depleted, by actions in the past.

Similarly with public organizations: their capabilities are intimately shaped by their histories. The mighty American military, barely two decades after its triumph in World War II, proved humiliatingly incapable of defeating a ragtag insurgency in Vietnam. There were multiple reasons for the debacle, to be sure, but a major cause was the mismatch between the armed forces' hard-earned operational capabilities and the very different requirements of counterinsurgency. The intelligence services, similarly, proved maladroit when required to pivot from the threat of Soviet communism to the threat of Islamic extremism at the turn of the century.

The past is no straitjacket; agencies can and do change, as the subsequent adaptation of both the armed and the intelligence services attests. But history puts limits on how far and how fast an organization can adapt. As one of us has written, the manager of a public library can quite readily amend the mission from providing access to media to providing a wholesome after-school venue for latchkey children. But there are equally valid public missions—decoding the human genome, deterring substance abuse, scanning space for rogue asteroids—unavailable to the librarian because the path her institution has followed does not equip it to pursue them.

Incomplete Information and Continual Adjustment

A mariner seeking to sail from Madagascar to Mallorca would not simply point the ship toward the northwest and forge ahead, in a straight line, for the days or weeks required to cover the distance. Even if the African continent weren't in the way, he would know the general direction but not the precise bearing he should take. And even if he could be certain of the path from his start to his goal, countless adjustments would be required in the course of such a voyage. Favorable winds or currents might make an indirect course preferable to a straight trajectory. Depleted stores of food and water might mandate a detour for provisioning. The chance to capture an enemy vessel might amply justify a deviation. Even if the captain never makes a choice distinguishable from slavish fidelity to the order to "proceed directly to Mallorca," uncertainty about precisely where Mallorca was, relative to the ship's current position, would require continual corrections almost up to the moment of dropping anchor at the destination. It is no accident that a sailing ship's steering mechanism was organized around a wheel—that shape most capable of adjustments of any scale, from lurching reversals to barely perceptible refinements.

A wise public manager likewise is aware that the only thing he can know for sure is that there are things he does not know that will prove important to the success or failure of his mission. Eclectic opportunism in the face of surprise is a hallmark of effective management in unpredictable public sector settings. Briefly consider two examples.

The New York City parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, was inclined by temperament and training to provide citizens with excellent parks the old-fashioned way: by hiring city workers to develop and maintain and staff the facilities. But budgetary strictures made the direct approach infeasible. And Benepe realized that parks could become focal points for socializing and status seeking among the city's upper classes and the upwardly mobile. He eventually presided over a network of conservancies, volunteer groups, and "friends of" organizations—utterly unlike what he originally had in mind but successful in advancing his aims.

The Clinton-era labor secretary Robert B. Reich's campaign against garment-industry sweatshops was stymied, at first, by shortages of inspectors. He eventually came to realize that high-profile brands and celebrity endorsers cared far more about reputation than about fines or injunctions. And his team figured out how to exploit that motivation. The anti-sweatshop crusade switched to a strategy of publicly shaming firms and individuals associated with abusive labor practices—a heterodox regulatory model that proved not only cheaper but also more effective than conventional enforcement.

Plan of the Book

Pamela Varley's chapter 2 introduces our prototypical public manager and the problem she faces. In the wake of the September 2001 terror attacks Suzanne Englebert, a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard, is assigned the responsibility for organizing a national effort—coordinated with international agreements—to improve port security in the United States. On one hand, this can be viewed as a straightforward managerial problem entirely consistent with the mechanical view of public administration set out above. The captain is a midlevel manager in a well-established and hierarchically structured federal agency. The mission of the agency includes managing the security of the ports, both as a target of enemy action and as a portal through which terrorists bent on destruction might pass. Consistent with this mission, she is assigned the task of doing whatever she can think of to do in the material world to reduce threats to, or via, the ports.

But as soon as one begins thinking about what would have to happen to accomplish her material, concrete objectives, much of the mechanical vision has to be abandoned. At the substantive level, the nature of the threat to the port, or passing through the port, remains uncertain. The means for defending against the threats are equally unclear. Standard ideas about what port security means include developing and maintaining a perimeter through clear boundaries, fences, and identity cards, for example. But it is not at all clear that the reproduction of this kind of perimeter control would be the complete, or even the most important, solution to the problem. At the operational and managerial level, Captain Englebert commands little except her own time and capacities. She can leverage these capacities enormously by orchestrating a broad consultative process that simultaneously seeks to comprehend potential threats, imagine useful responses, engage those who could act to thwart the threat in voluntary efforts to do so, and create a regulatory regime that efficiently and fairly distributes the burden of action among the large network of actors who could make a difference. But exactly how to do this, and what the possible results might be, remains uncertain


Excerpted from Ports in a Storm Copyright © 2012 by ASH INSTITUTE FOR DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE AND INNOVATION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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