Evolving the National Weather Service. 5. Stakeholders

Continuing from the previous LOTRW posts…

There are many reasons to like the NWS Weather-Ready Nation initiative, but perhaps the greatest is this: its goal – building community resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather and water events – places the public – and the safety of that public – at the center, instead of somewhere on the periphery.

Since the goal extends far beyond better forecasts of future atmospheric conditions and improved warnings, it follows that the NWS cannot accomplish this alone. To succeed, it must partner with many other federal, state, and local government agencies; aerospace companies; private weather services and broadcasters; and enumerable non-governmental and faith-based organizations in a grand endeavor. Their shared purpose is not self-serving. Instead all parties are co-laboring to serve a larger society and a higher purpose.

Even more importantly: the public, the larger society, cannot be a mere passive beneficiary of this partnership. It must be a true player – an active, engaged, prepared participant. “Weather-ready” has to become a national value. Any success won’t be a NOAA/NWS success so much as it will be a shared national success. (More on this shortly.)


A protracted aside:

You often see the term stakeholder[1] used here, but in this context it is a pale, inadequate term. The word fails to convey the complexity of this web of relationships, or the role of the respective actors, or the compelling vision. Time was when folks in Washington would refer to “Agency X and stakeholders” to imply that it is the agency that is central. In this view, the stakeholders merely constitute a kind of swarm that accompanies or complements, but is usually subsidiary to or dependent upon – the agency.

Look superficially at Washington, and it might seem that most federal agencies still operate on this independent-agency/dependent-stakeholder-swarm model. We see this most vividly in highly-choreographed federal-budget rollouts every February and into March.

But that’s on the surface. In myriad side conversations and less-public venues, and throughout the year, a wide range of deeper discussions and nuanced, even strategic collaborations are underway that reflect a changed status in the agency-stakeholder relationship. Today it’s much more a true partnership, reflecting increased 21st-century urgencies, and more-balanced mutual dependencies. For example, in its report Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None, the National Academies of Science noted that:

“…At the time of the MAR, delivery of weather information was largely synonymous with the NWS, the broadcasting sector, and the private-sector suppliers of weather data and services that supported the broad- casting sector. Outside of this, the weather, water, and climate enterprise had limited capacity. Today, the enterprise has grown considerably, and now the NWS has many important partners. Private-sector and other organizations provide sensor data, weather forecasts, and value-added, end-user weather, water, and climate services to a broad set of customers encompassing both businesses and the public, with multiple sources available in many cases. All of these entities rely on core NWS infrastructure and capabilities to provide customized services. Together this combination of the NWS and third parties serves the nation better than the NWS could on its own.”

The National Weather Service by no means alone or unique in this respect. Today, Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior, EPA, NASA – really, all Cabinet Departments and so-called independent agencies – operate in concert with the private sector, academia, and NGO’s to accomplish their respective missions. They collaborate as mutually dependent entities, not just on-the-ground, tactically – but also at a strategic level.

Public policies are not in place to accommodate this changed reality. Instead they reflect a doctrine of separation of powers among the three branches of the federal government that has been vigilantly observed since the country’s founding. In addition, principal-agent models of the relationship between government and the private sector create a bright-line separating the two. Violations of these rules and conflicts-of-interest are vigorously and continually exposed by whistleblowers and aggressive media. This is as it should be; the rigor is to be welcomed. It’s one reason that America has remained relatively free of the fraud, corruption, and dysfunction found in far too many countries around the world. But creation and observance of such bright boundaries are not free of adverse side effects. They work a chilling effect on efforts to communicate and build trust across these boundaries.


Back to our main narrative. Here’s a thumbnail review of the National Weather Service history with the larger weather, water, and climate enterprise:

At the end of World War II, some of the military meteorologists who didn’t go to work in the Weather Bureau decided instead to make a private business of weather forecasting – tailoring services to small towns, state and county departments of transportation, farmers, aviation, and other lines of business. They discovered that on the one hand, they probably constituted the most heavily-subsidized industry on the planet – even more subsidized than agriculture with all of its price supports. The Weather Bureau provided essentially free-of-charge the observations, computer modeling, and much of the communication on which the private weather services were based. All of that infrastructure was built and managed and supported by the government and taxpayer dollars. But the same Weather Bureau also would from time to time and place to place prove an unfair competitor. Forecasters at local weather bureau offices would provide special, tailored services to individuals and institutions for free, based on little more than a handshake[2]. It wasn’t that the Weather Bureau and its staff were nefarious; they just weren’t always thinking through the fuller consequences of what might otherwise seem to be well-meaning actions. What was worse in many ways was that this unfair competition wasn’t framed by any over-arching policy. Because it was often inadvertent, it was also erratic. Individuals in the Weather Bureau might signal intent to provide this or that product or service, waving off private-sector entry; then fail to follow through. All involved – the NWS, private-sector weather service providers, and end users alike – would then find themselves in the worst of all possible worlds.

During the last NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring, in the late 20th century, agency leadership and personnel at all levels were mindful of these issues and moving rapidly to reshape policy. But social change and the advance of information technology were outstripping agency efforts to keep pace. Private-sector capabilities and infrastructure for every aspect of the forecast task – for observing, for modeling, and for dissemination – were also growing rapidly. Those changes have profoundly modified the partnership landscape over the past decade, as captured in several reports, including: Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services (2003), Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None (2012), and Forecast for the Future: Assuring the Capacity of the National Weather Service (2013). To everyone’s credit, today all parties involved use a variety of coordinating mechanisms including the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA)–based NOAA Science Advisory Board, and a range of dialogs at AMS-, National Weather Association-, and other venues.

Which brings us full circle to the American public. During the last century’s Modernization and Associated Restructuring, the NWS goal was to extend lead times for warnings of hazardous events, especially short-fuse, highly dangerous events such as flash floods and tornadoes. Sure enough, lead times improved. But that success exposed another challenge, which for want of a better term might be labeled public inattention. Just as weather prediction itself struggles with basic limits to atmospheric predictability, weather messages struggle with basic limits to public awareness, given American preoccupation with other matters: work, school, health, worship, recreation, entertainment, and information overload prompted by another success of our times – the IT revolution. How might hazard warnings break through the information fog? Social science has been wheeled up to the problem. Surveys, focus groups, and other tools have been applied. Social science is being directed at message-crafting tuned to reach different demographics; visual risk communication; exploitation of the full array of social media and smart devices; and more.

Such diverse efforts are alike in this one respect: they stop short of making any demands on the public, instead placing responsibility for safety on the shoulders of the information providers and emergency managers. However, given that we all live on a planet that does much of its business through extreme events, it seems reasonable that each of us should bear some personal and family responsibility for maintaining some degree of situational awareness with respect to weather hazards.

The Weather-Ready Nation vision addresses this critical piece of the puzzle.


[1]Originally, the word stakeholder referred to a mutually-trusted but disinterested third party who would literally hold the stakes for a wager. More recently, it’s come to mean a person or group that has an investment, share, or interest in something, as a business or industry; or, a person holding money or property to which two or more persons make rival claims.

[2] For a colorful account of what it was like to be one of those early private-sector meteorologists, read Can’t Take It With You: The Art of Making and Giving Money, by Lewis Cullman. Mr. Cullman gave up on weather business, invented the leveraged buyout, made the better part of a billion dollars, and has since been occupied with philanthropy. Quite a story.

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