Want a Weather-Ready Nation? If so, build “agency”.

But here’s the kicker: whether in weather emergencies, or disaster recovery, or in building national capacity and infrastructure for weather warnings, the most important “agency” isn’t a federal-sector institution.

LOTRW might not be devoting space to this topic if it had come up only once, but over the past half-month, it’s come up in three separate contexts:

1. Weather emergencies. An audience comment at the AMS Summer Community Meeting today in Raleigh, NC:

When you artificially constrain the forecast uncertainty, you deprive the public of “agency.”

Just prior to this remark from the floor, speakers on one of the panels had been discussing presentation of forecast uncertainty, and struggling to articulate some middle ground that might stop short of expressing the full uncertainty often displayed in ensembles of forecasts. The rationale was something like this: “when you forecast ‘between 1 and 13 inches of snow,’ the public thinks you don’t know what you’re talking about.” The audience speaker called this idea to account. She was making reference to how social scientists use the term:

“In the social sciences, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions. The relative difference in influences from structure and agency is debated – it is unclear to what extent a person’s actions are constrained by social systems.

 One’s agency is one’s independent capability or ability to act on one’s will. This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one’s experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into. Disagreement on the extent of one’s agency often causes conflict between parties, e.g. parents and children.”

By implication, she could have been suggesting that the purpose of forecast agencies (as in federal agencies, NWS, for example) should wherever possible aim more to equip people to make their own decisions and take action than to regulate those decisions and prescribe those actions.

2. Disaster recovery. July’s annual workshop of the Natural Hazards Center included a special session on the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Shirley Laska, one of the panelists, noted that the structure that FEMA imposed on the recovery process greatly limited the agency (there’s that word again) available to Katrina survivors. She noted that the slow provision of FEMA benefits was not the only constraint, but of particular consequence. (This deliberate FEMA pace seems to have been a conscious policy decision, as opposed to an unintended result.) This meant that Katrina survivors spent considerable time in limbo before being able to even start the process of rebuilding their lives. They therefore suffered loss twice – first from the hurricane itself, and then, from restrictions imposed by the subsequent policy process[1]. They weren’t equipped or allowed to recover and rebuild at their own pace and in their own way.

3. Efforts to build capacity and infrastructure for weather forecasts and warnings in developing countries. Nations vary greatly in the means they enjoy for providing public safety in the face of hazards. Many countries lack observations, forecast tools, dissemination infrastructure, and adequately educated professional personnel. Their plight has attracted attention and inspired action on the part of the United Nations, developed nations, commercial firms and a variety of other donors.

An expert in capacity building recently shared with me some of the pitfalls he’s seen in efforts by these donors, however well-meaning. These are numerous and pervasive, but all too often fall into the category of imposing donor structure versus building agency in-country. Combined with a donor tendency to parachute in and leave quickly, versus remain engaged for the long haul, this emphasis has the effect of perpetuating problems versus solving them.

The common lesson: in all dimensions of building a weather-ready nation and weather-resilience worldwide – preparedness, emergency response, and recovery – all experts involved might be well-advised to equip those they serve to exercise agency (and along the way shoulder responsibility) versus impose structure.

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[1] apologies are in order here; space and time, and my own inadequacies, prevent my capturing the eloquence and force of professor Laska’s arguments.

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