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Another piece that should be posted in every Federal department office and Parliament House.  Tyler Cowan argues that politicisation, not the markets per se, is the root cause of the current financial troubles.  Bad policies, bad regulation and political interference in the market mechanism led banks and organisations such as GM being ‘too big to fail’: they were propped up and protected from market realities.  Further interference is not the solution.

Today we have a financial-regulatory complex, and it has meant a consolidation of power and privilege. We’ve created a class of politically protected “too big to fail” institutions, and the current proposals for regulatory reform further cement this notion. Even more worrying, with so many explicit and implicit financial guarantees, we are courting a bigger financial crisis the next time something major goes wrong.

We should stop using political favors as a means of managing an economic sector.

Financial markets are subject to criticality—and so catastrophe and collapse—just as a natural system.  Preventing small failures—including through political favours and protecting interest groups—inevitably leads to more pent up energy and catastrophes.  Good system design allows constant small failures, as in an efficient market.  And even those ‘too big to fail’ must be allowed to fail, naturally—or some means found to bleed off the criticality, and reduce their size—else risk complete catastrophe.

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Oh, please:

Kellie McCoy, who led US combat engineers in Iraq and won a Bronze Star for valour

But Mr Combet’s Coalition counterpart Bob Baldwin disagreed and said yesterday that the psychological aspects of battle made the front line unsuitable for women.

First, there is no ‘front line of battle’ anymore.  What once may have been the front-line in earlier conflicts now reaches deep into society, across multiple geographical bounds.  Front-line soldiers now include logistics and supply, medics, air-traffic controllers, and civil affairs—not to mention diplomats, whose contributions in these environments are rarely recognised—all of which were once behind the traditional front-line.  Until Mr Baldwin grasps this idea, he will not understand the nature of modern conflict.

Second, let’s turn this around: is battle supposedly ‘suitable’ for men?  Is not the trauma experienced much the same, regardless of gender?  As for the argument that men feel the need to protect women, does not the reverse also hold true—or, for that matter, in traditional Anzac argot, a mate looking out for a mate?

Third, Mr Baldwin is wonderfully blind to all those instances where women have been in and contributed to battle in modern times, from the Tamil Tigers to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Experience from the latter suggests that having women in units is beneficial, especially for counter-insurgency operations—the sort of wars we’re fighting now.

Fourth, demography matters.  The ADF, like other Western militaries, has little choice but to increase recruiting women.  More women recruited will mean capturing a greater breadth of abilities and capabilities.  Once in, selections for all units should be made on the grounds of other than gender.  The ‘right’ to join a unit should arise from the ability to meet standards, make a contribution and be part of the team.  It is of course likely that men will tend to predominate in certain activities; men, particularly young men, tend to be higher risk-takers and tend to be physically better suited to certain activities.  But the same is not true of all men.   Nor do all men automatically bond together to the exclusion of women because, you know, they’re all blokes.  Where a woman meets the standard, contributes to the team (and bearing in mind that team-building is facilitated by good leadership), her gender of itself should not exclude her.

I could go on, but life is too short…  And Mr Baldwin needs to pay more attention to the changes in modern warfare and society.

Asked what they do, most public servants will talk in terms of positions in the hierarchy, or perhaps reflecting, broadly, the words in their position description.

But work (perhaps I should capitalise it: Work) is a much misunderstood concept, particularly—but not exclusively—in the Australian Public Service. Much work is hidden from formal view, and sometimes from the ‘public face’ of the organisation or sub-organisational group.

We can think of work in in two dimensions, transparency and formality, as set out below. Formal, open work is that described in position statements. Formal, behind-the-scenes work—such as team-building and collaboration—may be acknowledged in position statements.Work and reform

Informal work includes the ‘articulation work’ needed to adjust in the face of shifting, often unexpected circumstances, to work around problems and roadblocks, to deal with the consequences of distributed teams and changing understandings, and to get back on track (Star and Strauss 1999). Articulation work is likely to be non-discretionary—it’s needed to get the job done—but unrecognised.

When there is a misfit between the formal, overt expression of work and the actual work needed, articulation work increases. And as technology changes and cultural norms within the workplace evolve, articulation work increases.

The difficulty for anyone experiencing a reform program is that such reform teams often only acknowledge the formal, overt expression of work—position descriptions, in public service terms. They may acknowledge, even encourage collaboration, but show no awareness of the articulation work needed to support successful change, collaboration, and the constant adjustment of the workplace.

A focus on position descriptions increases the likelihood of misfit, hence greater informal work, especially articulation work.

Granularising work into individual positions perpetuates the production line mentality that tends to prevail in the public service, particularly in the rigid hierarchies of Defence.

It encourages reform efforts to see work as a linear, stepwise production line in which individual components can made more efficient and streamlined—the fallacy of likening work to tyre changes in a pitstop. It focusses on outputs, not outcomes.

Such views of reform completely miss the point. Defence will remain broken until it sheds such rigid, brittle, antiquated strait jackets of thought. That includes the notion prevalent particularly in the military that so long as the process is right, good things automatically follow.

Work is an intensely social activity. It bears all the attributes of any social activity: it is intensely non-linear, involving trial and error, the testing of ideas, artefacts and relations against the expectations of superiors, colleagues, peers and norms, a mix of exploration, confluence and opportunism.

And work is highly contextual: the work—and its convergence of purpose, intensity, support, technologies, skills, experience, personalities, rewards—needed to change a tyre in a pitstop are just that, suited to change a tyre in a pitstop. They don’t easily transfer out of that context.

In contrast to that 60 or six seconds in a pitstop, policy advising and intelligence analysis are—or should be—rigorous, rounded, inquisitive, judgmental and creative. Aside from sitting uncomfortably within bureaucracies, these are attributes are not suited to a production-line, efficiency-oriented, output-focussed mentality.

How should such reform efforts proceed, then? First, the heads of reform programs would be well advised to seek a better understanding of work, of the different types of work and their contexts at a individual, a group and an organisational level. Second, they should avoid the rigidity of position descriptions, and encourage more freedom for teams to devise their own work behaviours. Third, recognition of the existence of articulation work—but not formalising it, as that detracts from adaptability—would help reform program and managers ensure teams and teams members at all levels are better supported.

References

Star, Susan Leigh and Strauss, Anselm (1999), ‘Layers of Silence, Arenas of Voice: The Ecology of Visible and Invisible Work’, Computer Supported Co-operative Work, 8, 9-30.


One of the inherent problems with the Government’s national security agenda is its shopping list approach to national security.  Phenomena, both social and natural, are lumped in together.

Yet many of the problems now described as national security concerns are, at their heart, governance issues.  True, at one end of the spectrum—failed and failing states—governance and security are inseparable.  And policy-makers should always be aware that bad decisions have consequences for the safety and security of their citizens and the strength of their society.  But that’s what good governance is.

Securitising governance issues, rather than strengthening the government’s ability to respond and deal with them, can actually detract from national strength and security.  Securitising issues implies new rules and behaviours and measures of successful outcomes must be applied.

It redirects efforts to a more nationalistic approach, risking a bunkering mentality.

It implies supra-national problems can be solved by securing borders, favouring a garrison mentality.

It can become a self-referential practice—disease, for example, becomes a security issue not because a threat exists but because disease itself is presented as a security threat.

It is a reflexive response to the complexity of globalisation, rewarding inward-looking behaviours and controls as substitutes for government’s inability to tackle multi-dimensional trans-national phenomena.

And it rewards urgency—if it’s considered a security issue, it must be dealt with quickly, regardless of the cost—over the slower, much less sexy, evolution of institutions, people and societies.

These behaviours and understandings all distort measures of good governance.    Often the easiest and quickest response needed to ‘secure’ Australia is the one prioritised…and then the government’s attention moves on to the next urgent ‘national security problem’ competing for attention and resources.

Rather than securitising disease, for example, through prioritising border controls—an immediate and tangible response—more effort should be made to invest in the (long, slow) research needed for the new generation of antibiotics (for example), the (long, often slow) improvement of conditions, public health and alert systems in countries where pandemics are most likely to emerge, and the (long, often arduous) strengthening of international co-operation.

And surely climate change—predictions of imminent disaster, as per The Day After Tomorrow, aside; they rarely if ever match reality—can be handled through civilian planning and good governance rather than a fall-back to a short-term military ‘operational planning’ approach, as implied through use of a national security lens.

Similarly, responses to natural disasters—bushfires, for example, are frequent events in Australia—should be undertaken good, tested systems informed by research and reviews of best practice and past experience.  Where disasters exceed the bounds of those systems, then the military may have a role as part of disaster relief.  Again, a matter of good governance, not escalation to national security significance.

And so on.  Rather than indulging in hyperactive redirection every time a crisis hit, rebadged as a National Security Issue, it seems we’d all do better with a Bex and good lie down.

There is some good work being done coordinating national, state and territory systems, especially under the COAG process.  But few—there are some—good solutions are top-down, especially when they focus on control and are distant from the point of application or the communities concerned.  Much better to smooth the way, open debate and loosen controls, allowing new solutions to emerge bottom-up.  That will improve the chances for adaptation, rather than bearing the costs of imposition.

Bringing back the notion of public service as a virtue is hard in a short-term, media-driven, 24/7 world.  Still, resurrecting good education in the basics of a complex, modern Western society, including the trades, governance, systems administration, and IT and infrastructure development and management certainly couldn’t hurt and—who knows—may even help prevent some of those crisis, or possible crisis, flagged by the government.

And we need to think more rigorously about national security, and develop a much less flabby concept that lends itself better to understanding the relationship between issues, prioritising resources and developing sound governance.

There are two main problems with this:

  • unless New Zealand puts a lot more in—both defence spending and worthwhile capability—Australia will end up spending a good deal propping up the lesser partner; and
  • lest we forget, there was a good reason why New Zealand was booted out of the ANZUS Alliance.  It will be interesting seeing how Australia manages to put walls around the proposed combined Anzac force, given the degree to which the rest of the ADF is integrated with US systems.

I can see the attraction in terms of a combined force that ‘looks after’ the South Pacific.  But even there, having two separate forces has its advantages—namely that Australia makes New Zealand look a good deal more acceptable to South Pacific nations.   And Australia has a naturally more outward perspective than New Zealand.  Australia has to avoid New Zealand dragging Australia’s strategic focus down to the South Pacific.  Instead, it needs to assist New Zealand do more of the heavy lifting both in the South Pacific and beyond.

A common interpretation of the confusion within the White Paper is that the strategic environment is uncertain, and the White Paper has sought to respond to such uncertainty.

But the strategic environment has been ever uncertain: we don’t expect our strategic policy guidance to reflect confusion in both words and form.

It’s more worrying too, as the White Paper now is the centrepiece of the Government’s new strategic risk-based approach to defence planning:

Defence policy must be based on clear objectives. Not all strategic risks necessarily require our full attention, while those that are the most remote might require our fullest attention because of their potential consequences.  We have to be very clear about what matters most, so that we can provision against the right risks and do not waste resources. (Defence 2009, p11-12)

But it is hard to see how, if so, the understanding of risk differs from the understanding of risk employed since 1987, despite the geopolitical changes since that time.  It is still based on geography, and not based on strategic national interests.  And as such, it represents misunderstanding of risk and misrepresentation of national interests.

For example, take its absolutism:

Our most basic strategic interest remains the defence of Australia against armed attack…Before we attend to anything else, we must secure this strategic interest (5.3).

We should be wary of such statements.  They risk providing the military with a distorted view of priorities.  They accord primacy to the unlikely over the likely.  They ignore causation and consequences: not taking preventative action, including at a distance and well out of the range and possibility of conventional attack, may well increase the likelihood and repercussions of conventional attack.

And in a democratic society absolutism requires moderation.  In such defence—against what?—the over-riding priority for government and society as stated by the White Paper?  If so, why do we bother with putting government money elsewhere, such as education, health and roads?  If not, then what costs is the voter prepared to bear supporting a military and defence capability given the likely threat?  (Of course, Defence of Australia advocates have a silver bullet response to this question—two per cent of GDP—which has not been tested satisfactorily.)

Alan Dupont  put his finger on the problem in 2003:

[DoA advocates] concede that a direct military attack is unlikely, or even ‘highly unlikely’, but that since a military attack would be a serious event, with potentially grave ramifications for Australia’s security, prudent decision-makers must consider outcomes as well as probability.

This curious inversion of strategic logic contradicts the first principle of risk management which is that the consequences of an action must be carefully weighed against the probability of its occurrence. To argue that a highly unlikely event should command the lion’s share of an organisation’s resources or be the principal focus of its attention would not get past first base in the political or corporate world. It is certainly not the basis for a sensible defence strategy given the diversity and immediacy of the security challenges now confronting the ADF. (Dupont 2003, p59)

Aside from the ‘inversion of strategic logic’, the White Paper is breezily unaware that the use of risk management as a tool for strategy comes with its own traps for the unwary.

The reliance on risk as strategic policy-making blinkers decision-makers.  They are constantly tempted to deal with future risk—the possible problems of the future—rather than focussing on the real, hard problems of the now.  One can understand the political temptation: they cannot be held responsible now for the future, and creating a future myth is addictive and, properly managed, can sell well in the electorate.

Reliance on a risk management approach is based on the false premise that future risks can be assessed correctly.  But that’s impossible in the real world.  We cannot even identify and catalogue all risks, let alone assess their importance to our national interests.

The White Paper chooses a deliberate hobble—geography.  Geographically close risks, it assumes, are inherently worse than geographically distant risks:

all other things being equal, our capacity for influence and our imperative for action are going to be a function of proximity. (5.27)

But what is proximity in a highly interconnected world?  Threats, agents and the application of force, through technology, can traverse physical distances with ease, from unexpected places and in unanticipated ways.  Yet Defence persists in assessing threats and opportunities through a linear ‘steaming day’ lens.

The conceptual difficulty for Defence in identifying and assessing threats and so risks arises from

  • Defence’s boundedness by its platforms—what is the reach of a C-17 and how long before a tanker reaches its destination, for example;
  • its persistant top-down nation-state view of the world, and so often casual dismissal on non-state actors and phenomena; and
  • its inherent bias towards risks and behaviours it knows and understands.

We reach an uncomfortable dichotomy.  On one side, bureaucracies—including the military bureaucracy—feel more comfortable handling the known, everyday risks, substituting the immediate for strategy.  On the other, absent a clear conceptual understanding of the strategic environment, needs and drivers over the longer-term, strategy collapses to the absolutism expressed above.  Little wonder defence policy follow the prevailing winds, held down only by its own inertia.

Last, reliance on a risk management approach is disingenuous.  It suggests that the government in its wisdom will chose the ever-safe course, avoiding risk.  But as we know, such a path leads into stagnation.  And in geopolitics there is no fail-safe course.

Risk management is a useful tool—but only one of many.  There are smarter approaches to dealing sensibly with uncertainty than an over-reliance on a misapplication of risk and risk management.  These require a deeper understanding of strategy, the environment and of the available tools than is evident in WP2009.

References

Defence (2009), ‘Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030’, (Canberra).

Dupont, Alan (2003), ‘Transformation or stagnation? Rethinking Australia’s defence’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 57 (1), 55-76.

Clausewitz as educator:

He reacted against a mode of theorizing that aspired to imitate geometric and mechanical sciences. “Theory cannot equip the mind with formulas for solving problems,” he warned, “nor can it mark the narrow path on which the sole solution is supposed to lie by planting a hedge of principles on either side. But it can give the mind insight into the great mass of phenomena and their relationships, then leave it free to rise into the higher realms of action.”

Alarmed by war, Clausewitz made two fundamental contributions to its study. First, he insisted on the importance of thinking over doctrine; and second, he believed that such thinking could be taught.

I wholeheartedly endorse the importance of thinking over doctrine or the unquestioning embrace of templates, but will beg to differ—slightly—on the last point.  I believe that just as with musical or mathematical talent, some have a better strategic than others, and while it can be taught, learning strategic thinking requires learning by doing.  By that, I don’t mean being part of the military, not least as that implies that military experience is a pre-requisite for strategy-making.  Which is not the case—’professional officers [are] unattuned to strategy because the complexity of military operations made them pre-occupied with tactics and technology’ (Betts, 1997, p11).  But being intellectually curious, receiving good mentoring, and working, writing or learning in an environment with good strategic thinkers is invaluable—and hard to achieve.

Reference

Betts, Richard (1997), ‘Should Strategic Studies Survive?’, World Politics, 50 (1), 7-33.

The move of Ian Watt to SecDef is being interpreted as the government moving to bring Defence under control and making sure it scrapes out the $20b in savings promised. True, the budget and Defence finances are likely to hit a wall in the next year or two—and might even be one more reason for an early 2010 election.

But far from bringing Defence under control, it further diminishes oversight of the military and their task: it risks leaving CDF in control of everything but accounting.  There is no path for alternate for alternate civilian advice to the Minister—or given the military’s influence in PM&C, to the Government—on strategy, operations or capability.  Watt will be focussed on the books.  Unless he deliberately moves to strengthen civilian capability in strategy, operations and capability inside the Department—for which he must have the absolute endorsement of both Faulkner and Rudd—he will be ‘Master of Caravan’ only, and the diarchy, and with it civilian control, will be dead.

And let’s not forget the signals sent by Nick Warner’s future.  His move to ASIS is ostensibly a demotion; that role is an agency head, a lesser position and not a secretary-ship, and one out of sight and out of mind.  When Defence is a problem, civilians are punished.

The pieces by Mahnken, Singer and Harp all point to an increasing dependence on information technology:

  • strategically, to help overcome weaknesses elsewhere (such as demographics);
  • operationally and tactically to secure battlefield advantage and in an effort to gain certainty; and
  • in terms of resourcing and capability, to enhance existing systems.

As Harp notes, the reliance on information technology to deliver an ‘edge’ now lies across a range of domains, from warfighter to strategic strike to counterinsurgency to humanitarian missions.  And increasingly the end-users of capability are ‘digital natives’  comfortable in information-saturated environments, who not only rely on information and social technologies, but expect those technologies in their work as well.

The use of information technologies increase the West’s dependence on immediacy as the dominant paradigm.  The effort to ‘get inside the OODA loop’ is an expression of immediacy, as is the collapse of time, space and hierarchy as generals seek to direct their lieutenants through real-time video.

Immediacy indeed can be useful in the tactical level, but its utility lessens as we move from the tactical through the operational to the strategic.  As we ascend the layers, immediacy becomes one of a range of considerations, such as positioning, sustainability, escalation (and de-escalation) and political ends.  A preference for speed risks excluding other means of shaping the environment and achieving strategic objectives.

In the Iraq invasion, a broader and heavier footprint was eschewed for speed and leadership decapitation.  Subsequent experience from both Iraq and Afghanistan emphasised the importance of slower, more patient understanding of change-resistant traditions, and of the time needed to build trust with communities.

Greater reliance on information technologies increases interconnectedness.  Considering organisation purely as information processes—a very IT-centric view—the behaviour of the organisation is a function of its network structure and the information-processing capability of its agents.  A completely connected structure—every agent connected to every other agent—would, one may think, have the highest possible processing capability.  But that would assume a) infinite processing capability on the part of the agents; b) immediate information transfer, with no delays or attenuation; c) completely accurate information.

None of those assumptions holds, of course.

People have limited processing capability, and we filter information and exclude data that does not fit with our preconceptions.  Even real-time systems suffer from delays, though they may be imperceptible–and data may take time to assemble itself into meaningful information.  Nor do we necessarily want the immediate to crowd out the important.

Moreover, we reinterpret data and information as it arrives and is processed—and errors creep in and are rapidly magnified through speed and linkages.  And information is contextual, and context doesn’t always translate easily through technology.  High degrees of interconnectedness increase system complexity and the chances that poor or simply wrong information will cascade across technological and social networks.

Such systems can be self-correcting, when, for example, individual agents have the ability (and authority) to self-correct, the wider context and information to self-correct, and there exists source in which they have sufficient degree of trust.  The latter, of course, is not necessarily the government or highest authority.

All this implies that to be effective, increased reliance on information technologies has to be accompanied with changes to social systems and organisation.  Social organisations are far more adaptable than brittle, complicated IT systems—and the more sophisticated the technical systems, the more fragile it is.  The popularity of current social networking technologies is that they are lightweight and match much more closely social organisation.  They don’t match top-down command and control or silo organisations.

Briefly, we can expect that information technologies, amongst other attributes, will

  • Enhance speed and immediacy as discussed—the challenge will be to avoid their temptations, but take the long view and choose their use wisely;
  • Allow the retrieval of past patterns of behaviours—both sides can build up ‘pattern libraries’.  Terrorists and insurgents already scout out targets using information retrieved from the internet and Google Maps; human terrain teams seek to understand and map the social environment in which the military operates.  Information technologies can capture conversations, traffic streams, local weather conditions, trade flows and so on ;
  • Reverses traditional command and control, both as illustrated by Singer, but also through enabling different means of organising (for example, swarms, ‘pop-ups’).  The need for human capital—skilled, experienced, and educated people, both military and civilians—will increase: it takes people to programs, understand, assess and make judgments on the vast streams of data enabled through technology; and
  • Obsolesce old platforms, as old platforms are made vulnerable by new technologies and, as Harp points out, advantage in a shift from platforms to systems  It also enables new capabilities to be developed, and implemented quickly.

Krepinevich has a pertinent point: rocket, artillery, mortar and missile (RAMM) capabilities are proliferating rapidly, and guided RAMMs (G-RAMMs) are increasingly available.  The later ‘do not require a high degree of operator training’ (p24).  The range of such weapons extend out to 50 miles/80 km, compared to the 4 mile/7 km radius of Vietnam-era mortars.

How well then does the inkblot approach to counterinsurgency work, when the insurgents can attack bases from such a range?

References

Krepinevich, A. F. (2009). “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets.” Foreign Affairs 88(4): 18-33.

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