Evolving the National Weather Service. 7. Get your head on straight… and keep it there.

Then Ben-Hadad sent another message to Ahab: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if enough dust remains in Samaria to give each of my men a handful.”

The king of Israel answered, “Tell him: ‘One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.’” – Ahab, King of Israel (reign approx. 870-850BC; quote from 1 Kings 20:10-11)

ahab defeats

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Concluding the series of LOTRW posts on evolving the National Weather Service…

When Richard E. Hallgren and his headquarters leadership and staff (and their successors) carried out the 20th-century’s Modernization and Associated Restructuring from the 1970’s through the 1990’s, they didn’t tinker overmuch with NWS headquarters structure. Instead, they relied on their oversized personalities – there were plenty of those – and personal relationships and trust, forged over the years and in some cases over decades, to carry them through.

The current evolution of the National Weather Service stands in stark contrast in this essential respect. Today’s leadership inherited a headquarters structure that hadn’t received a serious overhaul for perhaps half a century. Decades of “temporary” fixes and patched-on workarounds had left a management structure that would have made the legendary Rube Goldberg blush:

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Reorganizing headquarters to meet 21st-century demands and building a culture of change were early priorities for the new group. At the same time NWS leadership improved financial controls and accountability, and streamlined the budget structure, aligning it with the reorganization.

This was no mean feat. It has taken a couple of years, in part because it wasn’t simply an internal NWS matter. Instead it required outside approvals at NOAA, Commerce, and OMB levels within the executive branch… and the occasional Congressional okay as well. At the same time it confronted most of the NWS headquarters staff with a dual challenge: (1) preserving NWS essential services without skipping a beat while making the changes; and (2) maintaining individual energy levels and morale even as virtually everyone’s job was “under construction” – temporary, or interim, or being redefined. Think of it as a couple of years of musical chairs, only with professional stakes. Not everyone came out ahead. There were casualties and painful sacrifices.

In light of this accomplishment, it might be tempting for all parties concerned to take a moment for a deep breath and indulge in some self-congratulation. But the reality is that they’re not at the end of a journey. Rather, they’re at the start. They’ve gotten their head straight, but now they need to keep it there. They’ve simply laid part of the foundation for the true job that remains – the job of evolving the NWS, and building a weather-ready nation. That task is not just multi-dimensional, but also multi-year. It will take at a minimum one or two decades. To describe it fully would take more time and space than you and I can give to writing or even reading it. But, based on the vision guiding the current NWS evolution and its preceding Modernization and Associated Restructuring as laid out so far, we can see the main elements:

Technology and Infrastructure. Today’s NOAA- and NWS leadership face the need for catch-up from decades of obsolescence. But they don’t want to stop there. They seek not only a massive reworking and modernization of technology and infrastructure, but also to accomplish what their predecessors failed to do: make such R2O an integral and ongoing way of doing business. They want modernization to be part of their culture, versus an intermittent, disruptive upheaval.

People. People in the business of change can’t expect to be immune from its consequences. And the entire NWS from the bench forecasters on up to the leadership need to see themselves as change agents, embracing new skills and new ways of working. Rather than flinching in the face of the future, they should be boldly and busily reshaping it. This means more than finding new ways to do the same old work; it means continually reshaping that work as social change and technological advance redefine what it means for the nation to be weather-resilient.

Stakeholders. For the NWS, much of that redefinition involves restructuring its relationship with its growing legion of partners – and doing this in a way which fosters mutual interdependence versus a one-way dependency, and that builds the capacity of the entire enterprise to serve the larger public. The task extends to drawing in the public as a fully-active and prepared participant. Fact is, none of us is a spectator. We all have to pitch in.

Because all this will take decades, present NOAA and NWS personnel, especially the leadership, young though they are, can’t count on seeing this through, but will only set the stage for those who follow. This reality calls for a culture that for want of a better term might be described as everyone-a-mentor – placing high priority on equipping others versus seeking help from them.

That’s where the story of King Ahab and his nemesis, Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram, comes in. Ahab was no saint. The Old Testament tells us that “he did more evil than all the kings before him” (how would you like that on your resume?). But he recognized Ben-Hadad’s threats for what they were. And he understood that if there was a time for boasting, it would be after the war, not before. This wisdom saw him through the battles ahead. Though it would take years, he would eventually defeat the Arameans and their king.

The same laser-focus on the long term goal – building national resilience at the community level to extreme weather and water events –is essential here.

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