Evolving the National Weather Service? Some reflections (from a distant mirror).

The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” – Theodore Roosevelt

“This isn’t the NWS Modernization. It’s the 10th NWS Modernization. And it isn’t just a Modernization. It’s a Modernization and Associated Restructuring.” – Richard E. Hallgren (NWS Director, 1979-1988)




NOAA’s National Weather Service is busily engaged right now in reinventing itself – from its leadership and management to the bench forecaster, from its observations to its products and services, and from its internal organization to its relationships with the public it serves and with other stakeholders. This is no mean feat; indeed it’s akin to changing the tire while the car is moving (yes, it can be done). The reinvention is years in the making, and stressful, perhaps even exhausting for all involved… and it’s not being accomplished in isolation. NWS is attracting plenty of attention and advice from all sides, including reports from the national academies, Congressional legislation, and input from private-sector meteorologists, emergency managers, transportation officials, and many others.

All this action and the surrounding hubbub calls to mind an absolutely extraordinary book published in 1978 by the noted popular historian Barbara Tuchman (pictured above). Entitled A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century, the book was written during the Cold War, at a time when people lived with the prospect of a nuclear holocaust. Not suprisingly, speculation about the possible consequences of such an event was widespread. Ms. Tuchman suggested that perhaps lessons could be learned from a look at the Black Death, which killed one third of the people from India to Iceland during the single winter of 1347-1348. Her book was rich in detail, and covered many topics, but one feature stood out – a shift in the balance between the supply and demand for labor. Prior to the plague, there was plenty of labor to go around, and most Europeans lived in poverty and slavery – feudal servitude to a handful of nobility. In the aftermath, labor was at a premium. People broke free of their feudal masters, formed guilds, and a middle class was born.

So – channeling President Roosevelt and Ms. Tuchman – where might we look to find lessons that history might offer to guide today’s NWS evolution and reinvention?

It turns out that we don’t have to go far afield; the so-called NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring of the late 20th century might be a good place to start. This has already been widely recognized by all parties. For example, prior to the NAS/NRC’s landmark 2012 study, Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None, the Academy’s Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate published The National Weather Service Modernization and Associated Restructuring: a Retrospective Assessment, looking for lessons learned[1].

And those leading that particular effort (which was most visible from the late 1980’s through 2000, but had roots extending back into the 1970’s) were in turn very mindful that their work had historical precedents as well. During the period Dick Hallgren, who masterminded the MAR and who was director of the National Weather Service from 1979-1988, would fulminate against any and all (like me), who would attempt to use the shorthand “the modernization” to refer to the process.  Every time, he’d pounce: “This isn’t the NWS Modernization. It’s the 10th NWS Modernization. And it isn’t just a Modernization. It’s a Modernization and Associated Restructuring.” Occasionally I’d try to argue the “10th,” accusing him of making that detail up. He’d always rattle off a few dates. And he was adamant on the “associated restructuring.” He always made sure that every listener understood the effort wasn’t about hardware alone. It was first and foremost about people and how they were equipped and organized to do the Weather Service job.

Which brings us to the current “evolution of the NWS.” NOAA and the NWS have been reaching out to stakeholders, sharing what they have in mind for this latest iteration of “modernization” or “evolution.”

The NWS approach addresses people; technology and infrastructure; management; and stakeholders. These were all features of the previous modernization and associated restructuring. As before – and this is the key point for this post — the starting point is the NWS mission, phrased this way: “evolving the NWS to Build a Weather-Ready Nation.” This is both motivation and guide for the entire evolution.  Demands on technology; the needed numbers, locations, organization and job skills of people; any necessary restructuring of offices; and any changes in internal and external relationships are then to be discovered in light of that mission and its requirements, not specified a priori in legislation or set as goals in and of themselves.

This mirrors a reality well understood by NWS officials during the Modernization and Associated Restructuring the last time around. Throughout the early 1980’s, NWS leaders were acutely aware of sentiment in some political quarters for privatizing weather services. They recognized that if they lost sight of their mission and mandate, outsiders might hand them (a less viable) one. Throughout, they held strongly to the core public safety mission of the NWS – an inherent government function, not easily devolved to the private sector. They resisted ideas that the NWS was solely an observational and modeling agency; they saw this as a step down a slippery slope. Absent the safety mission, financial pressures would constantly whittle away at the observational and modeling capabilities, to the detriment of public and private weather services alike. NWS Director Hallgren would consistently emphasize that the NWS would take no observation that wasn’t needed for public safety.  Of course, it was hard to find an observation that couldn’t be seen to contribute to this core goal.

Viewed in light of that prior history,“Evolving the NWS to Build a Weather-Ready Nation” has much to commend it. It maintains the public-safety focus, and it frames that task as a national task, not just an NWS task, or the job of either NOAA or the Department of Commerce alone.  The goal is a weather-ready nation, not just a national weather service that isn’t caught by surprise. The goal inherently  reaches outside the NWS purview, drawing in the private sector, state- and local government, and the public; and seeing warnings and emergency response as a residual part of a larger risk-management strategy, dealing only with that portion of the risk still remaining after land use, building codes, and strengthening of critical infrastructure have been tended to. It recognizes that science and technology are constantly advancing even as social change is redefining what it means for three thousand counties and countless more towns and cities to be weather-ready. Accordingly, the current NWS leadership hasn’t developed quite the circle-the-wagons approach adopted by NWS leadership in previous iterations. This time around, NWS has reached out to the National Academy of Public Administration for guidance as embodied in their 2013 report, Forecast for the Future: Assuring the Capacity of the National Weather Service, and has also tapped McKinsey, a consultancy, to help poll and work with stakeholders moving forward.

A good start.  Future posts will examine in turn each of the four major elements of the NWS evolution strategy as reflected in that distant mirror, the NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring.


[1] (Full disclosure/disclaimer). In the remainder of this post and those to follow on evolving the National Weather Service, the NAS/NRC Retrospective Assessment and other documents should be regarded as the definitive, peer-reviewed word. By contrast, what you’ll find here will be in the spirit of the Darwin quote on the blog’s masthead: mere personal views, supported by a little evidence.

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