Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Security, bureaucracy, and information flow

Ruminating on some recent events discourages me about bureaucracies once again.  An incident of late was characterized by an appalling absence of information flowing to the public, evidently because "public affairs" types are dead set against providing any information about negative events.  They seem to think that the best thing they can do is limit the discussion by providing no information, even when there's no conceivable harm to do sharing that information.  To such bureaucrats, the quicker the incident disappears, the better.  Unfortunately, such a policy opens the door for speculation and even encourages conspiracy theorists to allow their imaginations to run wild, while there isn't any information by which to dispute talk of conspiracies.  In an investigation following such an incident, it seems to me it would have been helpful to update the public about the situation - choosing utter silence is disrespectful to the public.

Our whole national paranoia about threats to our security, encouraged by many politicians, leaves me disgusted with the process of "security theater" - in which seemingly rational security measures make access for innocent people more time-consuming and even privacy-invasive, even though such measures represent little or no meaningful barriers to a determined terrorist.  Yes, creating barriers to external threats is rational, but the barriers I see would be little more than a minor annoyance to anyone with reasonable intelligence and a fierce will to do harm.  I think of it as I think of the act of locking your home's doors at night: door and window locks prevent honest people from entering, but represent little challenge to any criminal with half a brain and a determination to do you harm.  The act of locking your doors offers little more than a trivial contribution to your home security against those truly intent on harming/plundering you.  Security theater gives you the illusion of security, but does little to improve on it, in reality.

In our national obsession with foreign terrorism, we've been allowing government more and more license to commit unconstitutional acts in the process of "protecting" us.  The 4th amendment has been eviscerated in the name of security.  There's now a tolerance for widespread use of electronic surveillance measures, including the NSA's collection of emails and cell phone calls into a giant national data base for them to "mine" for whatever strikes their fancy.  There are reports of ugly abuse of security measures by TSA employees in airports.  The so-called "Patriot Act" continues to sanction abuses.  Bureaucracies impose stupid rules and "protocols" that may be totally unnecessary, but must be followed at the operational level by the agents of the organizations.  Such protocols seem mysterious and disturbing to the public, so without any information explaining their actions, the public is left to speculate about what's going on.  I consider that to be more harmful than good.

I've seen the notion of being ready for a storm result in a "certification" process that's mostly an empty sham, without much real substance in terms of storm readiness.  No matter how many certificates they may have, the city of Norman and the University of Oklahoma are far from being truly "storm ready" - it would take many years and cost a lot to provide what truly is needed to be ready for a storm (e.g., a tornado). 

In some situations, it's difficult to imagine just how to protect everyone in real-world events.  If the public is not equally committed to accepting responsibility for their own safety, and I'm pretty confident in assuming most people are not committed to that, there's little organizations and governments can do to protect them beyond what they're doing now.  It's comforting to see them working to improve the situation, but I doubt seriously they can protect themselves from lawsuits in the event people are harmed by a storm.  I can foresee circumstances in which people are killed but am powerless to do anything about it.  This situation is not helped when the bureaucrats place the protection of property as a higher priority than protection of people!  I've seen many examples of this, unfortunately.  "Oh, we can't use that space as a storm shelter!  It holds too much valuable property!"  Wait long enough, and the big disaster will occur ... and the lawsuits may well follow.   Being silent is not helpful or beneficial.  


Chris Webster said...


I would be very interested in hearing further commentary from you on this issue:

"I've seen the notion of being ready for a storm result in a "certification" process that's mostly an empty sham, without much real substance in terms of storm readiness."

I personally feel that "certifications" such as this are more for show than substance - i.e. something that fluffs up a website or resume, but seldom translates into real readiness. A certificate simply shows that at a single POINT IN TIME, the required actions were completed. One can be certified in ineffective skills and procedures, and still impress those who don't look into the substance of the certification.

Perhaps this could be the topic of a new blog post.

Chuck Doswell said...


The criteria to meet the requirements are set by the agency granting the certificate. If the bar is set low to qualify, the responsibility is the agency's. But I'm unlikely to do a whole new blog about this. My opinions on this topic are well known to the National Weather Service, and summarized in this blog.