Evolving the National Weather Service. 4. People.

“There is a human capital crisis in the federal government. Not only are we losing the decades of talent as civil servants retire, we are not doing enough to develop and nurture the next generation of public servants.”Daniel Akaka

…continuing this series of LOTRW posts

Tom Brokaw famously labeled Americans who experienced the Depression in childhood and then fought in World War II The Greatest Generation. According to Brokaw, this generation didn’t enter combat for fame or fortune but because “it was the right thing to do.” At the conflict’s end, still interested in “the right thing to do,” many veterans chose to serve their country as civilians.

Indeed, the reality is that civil service can (and should be) deeply satisfying. Both “civility” and “service” are each public values in their own right; conjoined, they become something profound, especially as sustained over a full career. That’s particularly true in meteorology, where the emphasis every day is on saving lives and property.

World War II was fought with the aid of a variety of technologically-advanced tanks, ships and airplanes. Though projecting unprecedented firepower, these platforms all were vulnerable to prevailing weather in new ways that hadn’t been so consequential for the foot soldiers of prior wars – and often hadn’t been foreseen (the belated discovery of jet streams and their threat to high-altitude air transport being just one example). It was therefore only natural that the U.S. military would need to train some fraction of its recruits in the science and practice of meteorology.

The same factors driving military need for weather services were mirrored in peacetime America (and had earlier motivated the 1940 transfer of the Weather Bureau from USDA to the Department of Commerce). Enough military-trained meteorologists went to work for the U.S. Weather Bureau in the years following the war that they created a demographic bulge in the staffing, culminating in an aging cohort entering retirement throughout the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

weatherbureau

This retirement bulge posed both a challenge and an opportunity for the National Weather Service as all NWS employees from the leadership to the bench forecasters worked together to accomplish the late 20th-century Modernization. The new technologies – ASOS, the new NEXRAD radars, and AWIPS – were going to eliminate a lot of drudgery from meteorological jobs, but they demanded more from each employee by way of professional background. The NWS at the time also had a blend of forecast offices or WSFO’s and a very large number of smaller, less capable offices called WSO’s. It was clear early on that the modernized NWS technology couldn’t be made available at all of these smaller offices. Some would have to be closed.

weather service of today

But the challenges weren’t just technical and economic. They were also political. At the time, some in the Reagan administration and in the Congress were floating the idea of privatizing the National Weather Service. They demanded that the NWS prove according to conditions specified under OMB Circular A-76 that it could provide service comparable to that provided by the private sector at no additional cost to the taxpayer. Others in the Congress had different, conflicting concerns. They worried that likely closures of WSO’s and even WSFO’s in their districts would put their constituents at increased risk to weather hazards. Eventually Congress required the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to certify that any closures would result in “no diminution of service.”

NWS leadership and staff at all levels of the time gave this “people-aspect” of the Modernization priority and handled it strategically. They took a series of actions. They were punctilious from the beginning to speak only of an NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring; they never used a shorthand. Instead of thinking in terms of arbitrary cutbacks in NWS locations and/or staffing, they gave primacy to the public-safety mission and then from that mission-mandate-function they derived the reconfigured NWS form[1]. Ultimately (a good deal of over-simplification here), that approach would lead to Forecast Offices equaling in number and collocated with NEXRAD radars. NWS worked out plans for maintaining continuity of service as some offices were being closed, new offices were being opened or expanded, and staff relocated as new hires were coming on. They set about a dialog with the university community about job opportunities and educational requirements for new NWS hires. At the same time, NWS increased in-house training. They also worked with Congressional offices, local governments, and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to carry out the certification process and allay public fears.

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The NWS evolution of the present day must address many of these same challenges. Even as some political quarters are once again suggesting re-sizing of the NWS, NWS leadership and staff must as before maintain laser-focus on the primary NWS mission to save lives and property (but add business- and community continuity as well) – and then let the mission determine staff size and office locations[2]. (Technology advance also continues to change weather sensitivities of power generation (wind and solar especially), agribusiness, surface- and air transportation, water management, and more, requiring more detailed short-term (minutes to hours) forecasts as well as extending the forecast time horizon to weeks or months. Today a secondary demographic bulge is leading to more retirements – not of the greatest generation but now the retirement of their replacements hired in the 1980’s and the 1990’s. Professional education and training has once again to be expanded – but today’s challenge is not solely to increase meteorological expertise but also add additional background in the social science of risk communication[3].

Risk communication is indeed the name of the game.  Social scientists remind us that this risk communication, to be effective, must recognize ethnicity, income, gender, age, health, of the hearers on the one hand, and be based on a high-level of trust and connection with the risk communicators on the other. And indeed weather risk communication passes through many hands: from forecasters to emergency managers, broadcasters, business-based emergency coordinators, social media and more on their way to members of the general public. Discipline is required at every step to avoid the confusion and miss-messaging familiar from the parlor game Chinese whispers or telephone (also known as whisper down the lane, broken telephone, operator, grapevine, gossip,  secret message, the messenger game and pass the message).

As with the technological challenges discussed in the previous LOTRW post, neither NWS nor its parent agency NOAA can accomplish all that’s needed alone. They will need help from:

Congress. Congress can be most helpful by reiterating long-standing policy priorities: that NWS focus on the public-safety mission; that NWS maintain and improve end-use outcomes; that NWS and private-sector partners collaborate on the accomplishment of this mission; that Commerce certify this performance, etc.  Equally, Congress can avoid the temptation to be overly prescriptive about how these ends are achieved (number of offices, employees, favoring certain kinds of modeling aids over others, etc.).

The Department of Commerce. The social science seems to be clear: to be successful, effective risk communication needs to be segmented and tailored for a variety of demographics groups. The Commerce Department in its Census Bureau contains considerable demographic data compiled zipcode by zipcode. Perhaps as part of its big-data objectives, perhaps through other means, Commerce might enable private-sector partners to tailor and target weather- risk communication for all Americans, subject to the constraints of privacy policies and individual opt-in/opt-out preferences.

The private sector. Virtually all of America’s (many) publics ultimately receive their weather information through sundry private-sector means. The diversity of these means is to be applauded and protected, and yet the work of maintaining people’s right to life in the face of weather hazards might be aided by more of an accompanying, ongoing strategic-level discussion between the private sector and federal, state, and local governments on how well things are going. (Infomercial; in the spirit of the 2003 NAS/NRC Fair Weather Report, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) such as the American Meteorological Society can play a helpful role here).

The larger public. Increasingly, the march of (meteorological and social) science and associated technologies is requiring that all Americans play a more active responsibility for their weather-readiness/safety. Just as doctors and other healthcare providers emphasize that we all need to take charge of our own treatment, meteorologists should stress the need for active, knowledgeable public uptake of weather information. (To do otherwise would make no more sense than a football coach working-out the quarterbacks while giving the receiving corps the day off.) The rapid improvement in the specificity and value of weather warnings is outpacing public appreciation for just how far the science has advanced, and public understanding of what to do with the new information. The science-agency efforts need to be matched by emphasis on public education, extending ultimately to K-12 public education.

When Senator Akaka made his observation some time ago, he certainly wasn’t prompted by today’s NWS evolution. And we’re most likely not in a crisis state.  But in today’s highly interdependent society, our prospects would surely be improved if each one of us, for at least part of each day, embraced a bit of the mindset – the attitude and goals – of a “civil servant.”

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[1] One big piece of that mandate is public safety and the legal liability that comes with it. These considerations are a large reason for the continuing government-role in weather-service provision today.

[2] Do you think the NWS is staff-heavy? Ponder this – the NWS currently has something like 5000 staff (not an exact number). For comparison, the Chinese Meteorological Agency or CMA has some 50,000 staff to serve a country of comparable geographic extent and a population only three times as big. (In part the difference reflects the reality that the NWS is already outsourcing many support functions that in the CMA are handled in-house.)

[3] Another bit of history. In the Modernization and Associated Restructuring, NWS/NOAA leadership wanted all forecasters in each office to share the warning-and-coordination function but were forced to settle for a single WCM position in each office.

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