Making the Most of Mess: Reliability and Policy in Today's Management Challenges

Making the Most of Mess: Reliability and Policy in Today's Management Challenges

by Emery Roe


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In Making the Most of Mess, Emery Roe emphasizes that policy messes cannot be avoided or cleaned up; they need to be managed. He shows how policymakers and other professionals can learn these necessary skills from control operators who manage large critical infrastructures like water supplies, telecommunications systems, and electricity grids. The ways they prevent major accidents and failures offer models for policymakers and other professionals to manage the messes they face.

Throughout Roe focuses on the global financial mess of 2008 and its ongoing aftermath, showing how mismanagement has allowed it to morph into other national and international messes. More effective management is still possible for this and many other policy messes but that requires better pattern recognition, scenario formulation, and the ability to translate pattern and scenario into reliability. Developing networks of professionals who respond to messes is particularly important. Roe describes how these networks better enable the avoidance of bad or worse messes, take advantage of opportunities resulting from messes, and address societal and professional challenges. In addition to finance, he draws from a wide range of case material in other policy arenas. Roe demonstrates that knowing how to manage policy messes is the best approach to preventing crises.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822353218
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/27/2013
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Emery Roe is a practicing policy analyst and Associate at University of California Berkeley’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management. He is the author of Narrative Policy Analysis: Theory and Practice, also published by Duke University Press.

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Making the Most of Mess

Reliability and Policy in Today's Management Challenges


Duke University Press

All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5321-8




My first and most important point: Policymakers in government and policy analysts in the public and private sectors have a great deal to learn about management from a special class of professionals little discussed in the literature or media: namely, those control room operators who manage large technical systems for water supplies, electricity, telecommunications, and other critical infrastructures that societies have come to depend on for reliable health, safety, and energy services.

This book is about applying what has been learned from managing more reliably in one domain (critical infrastructures) to the broader domains of policy and management that have their own political or legal mandates to be reliable, yet increasingly fall short of meeting those mandates.

When we think of policymakers, as we often must these days, we may have in mind leaders, legislators, and officials who govern our political institutions. When many of us think of control rooms and the operators in large-scale energy or telecommunications systems—if we think of them at all—it is during major emergencies. Among the better-known examples are the frantic actions of control room operators at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, or in the lower Manhattan telecommunications hub as the World Trade Center fell around it on 9/11.

Why should we expect that policymakers, analysts, and political elites have anything to learn from real-time infrastructure managers? Because these operators manage every day to prevent all manner of major accidents and failures from happening, which would occur if the operators had not managed the way they do. We see politicians, policymakers, and their support staff operating at their performance edges; what we don't see is that critical infrastructure managers have to do the same every day, but more successfully, by managing the way they do.

My second line of argument: What exactly is this "managing the way they do"? To answer succinctly, control room operators are often brilliant mess managers, and what is blazingly obvious is we need better mess managers when it comes to what seem to be intractable problems in policies and politics.

When asked why I call these apparent intractabilities "messes," my answer is that this is precisely what they are called by those responsible for managing them. There is no metaphor or argument by analogy here. The healthcare mess, Social Security mess, financial mess, eurozone mess—those are the terms used by the public, analysts, and elites to sum up the issues and tasks before them. What is less recognized—and the book's aim is to fill this gap—is that the same messes can be managed more reliably and professionally than the public or the policy establishment acknowledge.

The image that the public may have of control rooms—men and women undertaking command and control in darkened venues, sitting in front of computer screens and with grid maps on the walls—captures none of the daily, if not minute-by-minute, adaptations required of operators to meet all kinds of contingencies that arise unexpectedly or uncontrollably and that have to be dealt with if the critical service is to be provided reliably. I argue that these skills and this perspective offer a more realistic template for success than do current policy analytical and decisionmaking approaches, many of which I show are faith-based in the extreme.

My third line of argument: Just look at the sheer number of different policy messes for which we need more realistic managers! After I describe what control room operators do in managing the variety of bad and good messes that come their way, I spend most of the book showing how those in and around the policy establishment can be their own networks of mess and reliability managers. As networks of professionals, I argue, they are better able to avoid bad or worse messes, take more advantage of the good messes there are, and more effectively address the societal and professional challenges ahead in managing policy messes more reliably.

For some readers these arguments are crystal-clear and in no need of elaboration before moving directly to the next chapters. Most readers will require a fuller description of why and how the points matter, as I intend the readership to be drawn from many fields and concerns. My examples are drawn from the United States and internationally; they include policy messes in the arenas of the environment, education, climate change, social welfare, health, and international development. I focus in all chapters on one connecting policy mess that enables me to illustrate the major points in my argument as I develop them. This is the global financial mess that came to the fore in 2008 and afterward. I describe and follow that mess as it has morphed into the multiple muddles over unfunded pensions, underfunded Social Security and medical obligations, sovereign debt, banking reform, and currency stability in the eurozone and elsewhere. I turn now to an expanded discussion of my three lines of argument.

This Argument in More Detail

Now step back and consider the world around you. It's a mess, and we know it. But if almost everything is a mess, is each mess being managed for the mess that it is? It is one thing to say that messes start out bad; it is something else to say that they are bad because we manage them poorly. A little bit of both is happening, you say. But that "little" matters considerably when capitalizing on the role of mess in policy, management, and politics. Good messes are to be had, and we can manage a major mess well rather than poorly.

For the moment, think of a policy mess as a public issue so uncertain, complex, interrupted, and disputed that it can't be avoided. It has to be managed; the problem is how. The ideal aim would be to prevent the mess, or clear it up once and for all, but that is easier to say than do. Yet every day, professionals reliably manage to produce critical services, including water, electricity, and even financial services. They do this not by getting rid of messes as much as by continuously sorting them out, especially when those services are needed most. How do these professionals do that, and what can they tell us about how to better manage messes or avoid the truly bad ones in our society? This book illustrates important lessons for those who need to be mess managers in policy, management, and the political economy we find ourselves in. My argument is that those in health, social welfare, development, business, and the environment, among other arenas, should become much more like those professionals.

The approach in this book builds on my work with Paul Schulman on reliability professionals. In High Reliability Management: Operating on the Edge (2008), we undertook a case study and detailed key concepts in the way control room operators and managers keep large technical systems reliable under highly volatile situations, when options are sometimes few, and success is never guaranteed. This book recasts those professionals and their networks as exemplary mess managers and extends the original framework into the wider reconsideration of political economies not just in the United States but abroad as well. My earlier book, Narrative Policy Analysis (Roe 1994; see also Roe 2007), showed how the disputed stories that drive much of public policy and management could be better analyzed. But stories have their beginning, middle, and end, and the nub of a policy mess is that those in the midst of it do not know how their policy and management efforts will or could end. After a point, decisionmakers may even wonder how the mess began or evolved. In contrast, mess managers are very good at answering the question "What happens next?" We will see how the unique narratives of mess managers play a major role in management and policy.

Much of this should not be new. It is a truth universally acknowledged that each generation discovers on its own just how complex and uncertain their surroundings are. As the nineteenth-century essayist Thomas De Quincey put it in his Logic of Political Economy, "upon what is known in Economy there is perpetual uncertainty, and for any inroads into what is yet unknown; perpetual insecurity" (1849, 35). For a contemporary example, the debt levels of U.S. states are so substantial, according to Felix Rohatyn, an expert in this area, that he can't "see where the end of this is" (quoted in M. Cooper and Walsh 2010). Professionals who find themselves in such a tide race of affairs and are searching for what happens next should read this book.

Specifically, policy analysts, managers, businesspeople, and public administrators will find the approach helpful in understanding what makes for the successful managing of policy messes in the sectors in which they operate. Business schools and programs as well as providers of health and social services should find much of use here. The approach also offers insights and instruction to a wider audience, including economists interested in the institutional design of governance structures; engineers committed to better design and risk analysis of large technical systems; organization theorists analyzing technological accidents and organizational reliability; social scientists studying major technology transformations; and planners for the long term who confront demands for better management in their arenas.

Some messes, to repeat, start out and stay bad; they may be beyond the grasp of management. Others are managed poorly or effectively, and it is essential to determine which is the case and what the results are. The following pages parse and explain good and bad messes; more important, they describe good and bad mess management. Many examples are discussed along the way, not just the 2008 financial meltdown and its repercussions. For the latter, I rely to a considerable extent on contemporaneous reports from the press and elsewhere to give a flavor of the immediacy of grappling with events in real time. We have been told that "the public finances of most advanced countries are in a greater mess than at any point in peacetime history" (Plender 2010b). If so, how do those managing it measure up against professionals who see to it that the messes they face are managed, not cleared away?

Were messes no different than problems, we could rely on conventional policy analysis and management to get out of them. No such luck. As I show in the first chapters, a policy mess involves changeable individual actions and local contexts confronting unstable principles and policies. Principles and policies, moreover, diverge significantly from the fast-moving trends and patterns they are meant to address. Yet all this slipping and sliding takes place under mandates to manage a critical good or service reliably—that is, safely and continuously—through time, no matter what rude surprise crops up. All this occurs in systems that are not just technical or organizational, but in the same instant rooted deep in political economy and culture. You can see why some call this constellation a potent source of "wicked" policy problems, in which cause and effect are tangled together and next to impossible to sort out.

Mess has never been far away in my own profession of policy analysis and public management, which is full of wicked policy problems, muddling through, incrementalism, groping along, suboptimization, bounded rationality, garbage can processes, second-best solutions, mixed scanning, policy fiascos, relentless paradoxes, fatal remedies, rotten compromises, managing the unexpected, coping agencies, normal accidents, crisis management, groupthink, adhocracy, and that deep wellspring of miserabilism, implementation. As these notions circle around the same prey, this book takes a closer look at the animal itself: the policy and management messes we find ourselves in, especially when it comes to important services like water, energy, transportation, telecommunications, health, finance, development, and the environment. In focusing on policy messes and their management, I do not critique conventional analysis and management as much as rethink my profession from a different direction. As I go along, I signal my debt to those who have thought through these issues ahead of me.

It's easier to belittle messes than avoid them, and the first thing good mess managers show us is that we manage messes we can't avoid, we don't "clean them up." Many people believe or insist that the way to clear up policy messes is by reducing uncertainty, simplifying complexity, resolving conflict, and completing unfinished business. A fair number of decisionmakers seem to think: This mess needs cleaning up, and since God isn't doing it—nor, for that matter, is anyone else—it's up to me to do the job. Such assumptions are why there are so many intractable muddles in policy and management.

What should they do instead? We can learn from those professionals whose job it is to manage mess all the time. There is nothing novel about the need for learning. What is new is shifting the focus to identifying, studying, and learning from a unique group of mess managers who are reliable in terms of the outputs and outcomes of their management. For them, managing well rather than managing poorly means they manage messes reliably or reliability messily: They manage the needful under always-dynamic circumstances. From them we learn that mess management requires three skills: pattern recognition, scenario formulation, and the ability to translate pattern and scenario into a reliable service, now when it matters. These professional managers do not achieve reliability directly by designing broad systems to govern all discrete operations. To be reliable, they and the networks in which they operate interpret what system patterns mean for the locally specific scenarios they face now and in the next step ahead. Why the need for translation? Because designs—be they policies, principles, or laws—have to be modified both in light of local features and in light of the broader patterns that emerge across a run of individual operations. Both have to be accounted for in order to achieve reliable services. This sorting-out process of recognizing systemwide patterns, formulating local scenarios, and modifying scenarios in light of those patterns is complicated, but it is the core of good mess management and what this book is dedicated to detailing. Put directly, this book aims to renovate the good name of mess.

To start with, it is important to understand the respective concepts of mess and reliability, which I introduce in the remainder of this chapter and discuss more fully in chapter 2. Chapter 3 identifies and describes those professionals who are officially charged with providing services reliably, but who unofficially have to do so by continually managing the messes that arise in that provision. By the end of chapter 3, the reader will have the framework to determine and evaluate what makes a mess and its management good or bad when it comes to the reliable provision of a service. The first step in making the most of policy and management messes is to minimize bad ones, and chapter 4 presents examples of bad messes and poor mess management in policy. Chapter 5, the longest in the book, devotes considerable attention to what makes for good and even better mess management. These chapters illustrate how to be good mess managers, protect such managers, avoid bad messes, and manage more reliably all those other messes in policy, management, and politics that have yet to go bad or are otherwise primed to go from bad to worse.

Excerpted from Making the Most of Mess by EMERY ROE. Copyright © 2013 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Introducing Policy Messes, Management, and Their Managers 1

2 When Reliability Is Mess Management 16

3 The Wider Framework for Managing Mess Reliably: Hubs, Skills, and the Domain of Competence 32

4 Bad Mess Management 56

5 Good Mess Management 78

6 Societal Challenges 106

7 Professional Challenges 128

8 How We Know That the Policy Mess Is Managed Better 144

Notes 155

Bibliography 175

Index 201

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