Culture, Analytics, and Collaborative Decision Making: U.S. Reflections on Flood Management in the Netherlands

Delta Works

Blogging from the 2013 INFORMS conference on Business Analytics and Operations Research in San Antonio, Texas, I would like to offer a big Texas ‘gefeliciteerd’ to the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis for their 2013 INFORMS Edelman Award for Operations Research and Management Science excellence achievement.  As well, congratulations on the impending coronation of Willem Alexander to King of the Netherlands.  His close connection to water management no doubt presages a vigorous implementation of the Delta Works renewal plan as outlined.

DeltaWorks1

As a dual U.S. and Dutch citizen myself, the CPB team’s presentation provoked some self-reflection in me concerning how the U.S. could similarly improve its long-term infrastructure management approaches, particularly surrounding flood defenses.

One aspect the presentation touched upon was the highly political nature of these big-budget, long-timeframe, high-risk megaprojects.  While formal methodologies can be used to identify optimal solution sets, scoping related to the quantification of objectives (minimized costs) while addressing constraints (aggregate damage measures given risk thresholds) are the outcome of rigorous stakeholder politics.  Even a seemingly targeted measure such as property damage is itself a highly contentious measure, embedding a multi-stakeholder ‘satisficing’ perspective balancing the variable perceived value of issues related across qualitative (and dispute) humanitarian / health, historical / cultural, environmental / sustainability, continuity / security / reputational, and industrial / economic measures.

The CPB presentation alluded to the ‘real politiks’ regarding megaproject planning and budgeting, revealing that the Dutch planning process went through a number of contentious iterations which were susceptible to the changing profile of fluctuating national politics.  The Netherlands, is a royalist-chartered coalition-based multi-party system, itself within the ‘evolving experiment’ that is the European Union (EU).  Proposals at the scale of the Delta Works renewal go through a tortuous ‘sausage grinder’ of committee and coalition political analysis, debate, and review.

The Dutch culture has a long tradition of collaboration-based political consensus building, going back, by some accounts, to the Middle Ages, forcing governance, industry, workers, and experts to come together in rough coalitions in order to build and maintain the dykes that protect common interests (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polder_model).  There is of course a level of inefficiency that arrives in such heavy-handed, discussion-heavy consensus building.  While the Eskimos have 16 words for ‘snow’, the Dutch language has a befuddling grab-bag of terms for the word ‘meeting’, each with fine-grained distinctions meaningful only to Dutch bureaucrats   However, if we are to look at aggregate outcomes over long-periods of time, by many standard measures of health, education, happiness, and wealth, the tiny Netherlands is a testament to long-term, high-quality decision outcomes.

A dramatic sequence in the presentation graphically displayed the effects and costs of a recent spate of U.S. flood-related disasters.  The implication that disaster infrastructure planning could be improved in the U.S. was hard to escape.  Politics, political processes, decision making, and decision outcomes having been the background to the Delta Works project, the U.S. could gain a good start on tackling growing infrastructure challenges by critically examining its own decision making mechanisms as related to megaproject-scale challenges.  Is the U.S. two-party system, almost a religious institution, nuanced and efficacious enough to process multi-stakeholder decision perspectives to the degree needed to handle the scale, generational timeframe, and complexity of such projects?

It would be incorrect to imply that the Netherlands is utopian:  large and daunting national challenges beyond flooding loom, including a rapidly aging population, flirtations with far-right politics, and challenges in effectively integrating ethnic minorities.  As well, it has been said that the current government has too forcefully adopted economic austerity measures, exacerbating current low-growth and high unemployment problems (http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21574028-imf-delivers-unexpected-message-dutch-focus-growth).  Such challenges will further constrain governmental budget leeway on projects such as the Delta works renewal.

However, this does not absolve the U.S. from needing to think more deeply about how the current political climate, and perhaps system, hobbles the ability to tackle large-scale, high-risk, long-timeframe initiatives.  At root is an inability to agree on principles and targets which underlie basic physical infrastructure goals:  how do we value initiatives associated with broad pubic good, but which simultaneously involve high social cost?  How do arrive at a single value calculation when multi-perspective challenges abound: humanitarian, social, economic, cultural, security-focused, etc.?

Considering more deeply how the U.S. might improve otherwise moribund coalition building and pro-social consensus-building political decision making processes would be an excellent start.  Beyond this, the financial architecture for assessing and funding such initiatives is otherwise anemic.  The stalled proposal to establish a U.S. National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank would be, in particular, a step in the right direction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Infrastructure_Reinvestment_Bank).

These are big thoughts, fit for a conference that was full of big ideas and a group of attendees that, no doubt, have the energy and intelligence to tackle such big problems!  Perhaps next year we will see the newly minted U.S. National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank analytics team at the Edelman competition.

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About SARK7

Scott Allen Mongeau (SARK7) is an INFORMS Certified Analytics Professional (CAP) and a Data Scientist in the Cybersecurity business unit at SAS Institute. Scott has over 20 years of experience in project-focused analytics functions in a range of industries, including IT, biotech, pharma, materials, insurance, law enforcement, financial services, and start-ups. Scott is a part-time PhD (ABD) researcher at Nyenrode Business University. He holds a Global Executive MBA (OneMBA) and Masters in Financial Management from Erasmus Rotterdam School of Management (RSM). He has a Certificate in Finance from University of California at Berkeley Extension, a MA in Communication from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Graduate Degree (GD) in Applied Information Systems Management from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He holds a BPhil from Miami University of Ohio. Having lived and worked in a number of countries, Scott is a dual American (native) and Dutch citizen. He may be contacted at: webmaster@sark7.com All posts are copyright © 2015 SARK7 All external materials utilized imply no ownership rights and are presented purely for educational purposes.

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