Foresight, Disaster, and Texas
The Economist recently published a piece about how, despite billions in losses and weeks without power, the state of Texas is unlikely to make the sort of significant changes The Economist deems necessary to avoid such a catastrophe in the future.
Some of Texas’ woes were reportedly attributable to the fact that the vast majority of its residents get their electricity not from one of the two major U.S. power grids, east and west, that cover the rest of the contiguous United States, but from ERCOT, the ironically-named Electricity Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s own independent grid. Many critiques of the disaster noted that the few small areas of the state that were spared most of the dislocation attendant upon the storm were, in fact, the ones that were hooked up to the eastern and/or western multi-state grids. El Paso, and much of the Panhandle, experienced the snow and ice as a pleasant rare diversion, not as the searing, week-long, life-threatening trial the ERCOT majority of the state lived through.
Many commentators, including The Economist, have leaped to politics as an explanatory framework. The Economist states that Texas’ longstanding antipathy toward federal government oversight and regulation makes any substantive reform of the state’s electrical system extremely improbable.
We would quibble with that assessment in this respect: while the two major parties tend to have variable levels of willingness to plan and provide for the long term, no party or region covers itself in glory in this regard. Recent Democratic administrations have been little or no more likely to make serious investments to address “low probability/high impact events” than Republican ones. While the Trump administration took a lot of flack for dismantling the Obama administration’s pandemic response team, the fact is that the Obama team only was hastily reconstituted after the Bush administration’s office of Global Health Security had been disbanded by the Obamaites five years prior to the Ebola outbreak of 2014.
And this gets to the heart of the problem: As former HHS Secretary (under the second President Bush) Mike Leavitt said, “In advance of a pandemic, anything you say sounds alarmist. After a pandemic starts, everything you’ve done is inadequate.” Something we’ve observed from years of scenario planning tells us that human brains under conditions of uncertainty and scarcity are simply ill-equipped to appreciate longer-term, seemingly remote and unlikely catastrophes. They are far more attuned to what our client Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen called “the tyranny of the present.” It’s a bipartisan cognitive bias.
Another client of ours, FEMA, recently issued a report about preparedness for disaster. In it, they point out, “[O]nly 42% of communities that completed the 2019 Community Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) identified a pandemic as a threat or hazard of concern.”
This is unsurprising to those of us involved in strategic foresight and scenario planning, even though we might point out that someone actually DID do extensive thinking about the possibility of pandemics, and that organization was called… FEMA. From one of their previous reports (which we helped to write, since we were the scenario planning consultants for their Strategic Foresight Initiative), you can search for the word “pandemic” and you will get eight hits, scattered throughout the document. You will also see references to the possibilities of destabilizing refugee flows and climate change, both of which have had some impact on our nation since 2011.
Why was government, then, seemingly so unprepared for this pandemic? Aside from the constant pressure on budgets and the natural urge to prioritize the immediate over the remote, Dan Balz of the Washington Post identified another aspect of the U.S. governmental system that may exacerbate unpreparedness:
“Another area where the United States is unique is in the number of political appointees atop agencies in the executive branch. The system is supposed to allow a president to gain control of the bureaucracy, but vacancies and constant turnover in those jobs mean that, when in their posts, officials are often afflicted with short-termitis — focusing on matters of the moment and ignoring underlying structural weaknesses that can become crippling problems in a crisis.”
Strategic choices about investments are always being made; even inaction is a form of strategic choice. With choice comes the chance of error, of course; but visible changes are more likely to attract blame. Perhaps it is this foreseen regret, as much as any tejano political biases, that makes it difficult to imagine serious investment in hardening infrastructure, much less linking up with “outsider” grids. “The way it has always been done” is a difficult thing to abandon for all but the most far-sighted strategic leaders. But as our clients can tell you, a good start is thinking the thinkable, and alternative futures scenario planning can help.