(Incidental) environmental intelligence[1].

Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Atmosphere and Oceans, and NOAA Administrator, has throughout her tenure, in venue after venue and at every opportunity, framed NOAA as America’s environmental intelligence agency. An example (just one of several):

“NOAA is America’s environmental intelligence agency. We provide timely, reliable, and actionable information — based on sound science — every day to millions of Americans. NOAA’s products and services are used by decision makers around the country to better understand risk and prepare for the future. We’re helping people, communities, businesses, and governments make smart decisions that directly impact the future of society, the economy, and the environment. The demand for products and services that NOAA provides continues to increase – from the daily weather forecast to seasonal drought outlooks, to decadal sea level rise projections, and much more.” 

A useful framing.

Unlike other U.S. intelligence agencies (a reclusive group by nature), NOAA makes every effort to be transparent. It’s therefore possible from time to time for ordinary citizens to get a glimpse of how things are at the agency. Tuesday’s National Weather Service Fall Partners Meeting provided just such a look.

What was on display was encouraging.

For the past two or three years, partners meetings at NWS have revealed an agency and a headquarters in major transition. Complete recasting of the budget categories and programmatic alignments. Redefinition of relationships with partners and end-users. Commensurate agency reorganization. New players, struggling to do incompletely-defined, evolving jobs while engaged in a professional version of musical chairs – competing for restructured job positions. A blizzard of recommendations for further change from both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Public Administration. Working with McKinsey, a consultancy, on implementation of these recommendations. Strengthening fragile infrastructure. Bringing new centralized computing on line. Taking exploratory steps to simplify forecast messaging while amping up communication of impacts and options for action. Standing up a new National Water Model and a National Water Center. Preparing for a new geostationary satellite. NWS intentions have been good throughout, but the atmosphere has been turbulent if not chaotic and the stress/toll on the players has been palpable. It’s been hard to see progress.

This Partners Fall Meeting felt different. The tumult has quieted. Change is still underway, but chaos has given way to convergence. Wrenching disruption has morphed into controlled innovation. NWS headquarters staff have settled into their respective roles, and are moving ahead with new confidence. The McKinsey Operations and Workforce Analysis has transitioned into an NWS evolution, but not a revolution. What had been a fragile vision, obscured by the murk of two years of upheaval, has become a new reality. Uncertainties in the forecast problem of the day, not uncertainties in the organizational future, can once again dominate the discussion.

Really quite amazing.

This has implications for the partners. In contrast to the situation prevailing as recently as a few years ago, partners today see an agency with a clearer understanding of its role in the larger weather enterprise, an agency able to segment and tailor its collaboration with partners depending upon their capabilities and reach. Partners can see a basic NWS/NESDIS NOAA infrastructure poised to disseminate data and model products of higher quality and with more reliability than in the past. Partners know where to turn within the agency to share ideas for improvement and for help when needed. They see an agency pursuing relationship, not lost in introspection. They see an agency regaining a culture of innovation and teamwork, not competition. Form follows function.

NOAA- and NWS-level leaders, personnel at every level down to the bench forecasters and interns, and all the private-sector and university folks who’ve kept the weather enterprise functioning throughout this period should be applauded for the combination of vision and effort and patience and yes – forgiveness – that have brought matters to this point.

Of course things aren’t perfect. There’s still room for improvement across the board. Each and every person involved is experiencing new frustrations and living with the memory of past wounds on a daily basis. And challenges lie ahead. Extremes of drought and flood, snow and ice storms, hurricanes and tornadoes that will pose existential threats to American safety; to production of food and energy and water resource management; and to the environment. But there’s general agreement on how to approach the work remaining. There’s a shared sense that the job still to be done seems more manageable than truly daunting trials just conquered. And what’s most important, there’s a growing trust across the enterprise that’s providing the foundation needed to move forward – not to feather the nests of those in the room, but in shared service to the American people.

Again, those present could feel that at the Meeting. Presentations and the resulting conversations focused on substance, not rhetoric. Side discussions were animated and positive.

And final subjective measure, perhaps the most telling of all… participants lingered afterwards. An hour later, folks were still in the room talking…

Of course there are other measures of the health of the environmental intelligence community. You probably have your own favorites, but two that come to mind are (i) efforts to prepare the professional workforce of the future, and (ii) the receptivity of the larger society to environmental intelligence. What’s the uptake?

Look for LOTRW posts on these topics.

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[1] For much of June-October, I’ve been out of the office, (mostly) on business punctuated occasionally by (some) pleasure. Hard on the blogging! But a great, though patchy window into the state of environmental intelligence (as a thing), into trends in the environmental intelligence community, and into recent findings of environmental intelligence and what they tell us. This and subsequent posts will offer a taste.

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