“Corrective Action” and the Public Trust

Evolutionary political change has affected our system in ways that no one could have predicted. Like the proverbial fish in a pot of water that gradually gets hotter, we did not notice that the vitality and life of our democracy has slowly been slipping away. But we do now.

Recent political campaigns in America have evoked reactions across the country that range from anger and frustration to indifference or denial.  There seems to be a near-universal feeling that the system is too big, too saturated with money and too disconnected from society for anyone to make a difference, especially when facing an array of powerful and unforgiving forces.

Former Oklahoma Congressman Mickey Edwards, in his most recent book The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans, explains the interconnecting elements of our system that have brought us to this point. In a recent presentation at the Washington offices of Gettysburg College’s Eisenhower Institute, Edwards outlined a set of circumstances that now threaten our democracy. Remedies, he says, include measures to curtail the power that the parties have over the electorate and a series of government reforms that could institutionally promote more bi-partisanship. Perhaps his most interesting recommendation in the context of this election, however, is this one: “Sign No Pledges, Stand Up to Bullies.” In other words, be loyal to the Constitution – not the Party.

It was exactly this point—“Sign no Pledges” — that animated a three-hour get-together I had with Senator Alan Simpson while in Cody, Wyoming this week. Simpson, co-chair with Erskine Bowles on The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, is adamant that the Republic is endangered when elected representatives opt to sign pledges, such as those extracted by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.  They constrain lawmakers’ actions, which can be disastrous when national circumstances dramatically change.

The imperatives for reform are clear, thanks to people like Mickey Edwards, Al Simpson and Erskine Bowles. But very few policymakers have shown the courage to adopt them.

That’s why the two-day “Continuous Improvement Conference” I attended in San Francisco a few days later was like a breath of fresh air. Convened by DevonWay, a nuclear software solutions company, utilities and nuclear reactor managers discussed a list of things they have been working on to improve industry performance.  Speaker after speaker emphasized the importance of vigilance in observing, managing and advancing processes that align with the nuclear industry’s core mission—supplying electricity in a safe and secure manner.

If management systems are not organized in a way that fosters “cooperation,” “information sharing” and “corrective action,” they warned, circumstances can create perverse incentives that will produce conditions rife for problems.  Constant emphasis on “self evaluation” is crucial. They also warned of the dangers of “organizational drift” and “widening gaps” between themselves and key stakeholders. No wonder the nuclear energy industry in the US has an extraordinary safety record and a reputation for a progressive safety culture, especially when compared to the energy sector as a whole.

Perhaps our politicians and lawmakers could learn something from the notion of “continuous improvement,” “stakeholder engagement” and “corrective action” in an industry whose positive approaches were borne of mission-driven necessity and a series of public set-backs.

Our politicians and the elections system that has emerged have allowed a widening gap to open between our public servants and the people they are charged with serving. Our political system is no longer doing what it was devised to do.

Congress and the Executive Branch should not be afraid of looking long and hard at the operational processes of the system over which they have stewardship. This is why, in part, the “Simpson-Bowles” commission was convened. If the recommendations of such a body are tossed aside after the election, some kind of reckoning will be sure to follow.

America’s nuclear energy industry has learned its lessons the hard way. Similar soul-searching should be required of every institution and officeholder who depends on the public trust. The people who control the system we use for electing our public officials, as well as the parties and their advocates that stand in the way of compromise, owe the American public much more than they have given us. Renewal undertaken sooner rather than later can still be manageable. But the “water” we are in grows hotter by the day.

8 thoughts on ““Corrective Action” and the Public Trust

  1. Susan you said:

    “America’s nuclear energy industry has learned its lessons the hard way.”

    Actually, in some very important areas America’s nuclear energy industry has not learned it’s lessons at all. The Industry focuses exclusively on “safety hardware defense in depth”. The Industry does not yet understand how to define the term “nuclear safety culture” properly, and so does not yet understand “safety culture defese in depth” the lack of which permits 80% of nuclear accidents to occur.

    Chernobyl and Fukushima were due to “socio-technical” failures – failures of people in concert with technology – failures of safety culture [leadership faiures actually]. These events were not due to improper “hardware defense in depth”.

    The failures of “safety culture” that permit such events to occur are not limited to leadership failures at the NPP [nuclear power plant] leadership. As we have seen they entend to leadership failures at the regulators as well, including the Japan NISA and the US NRC.

    An event at a NPP in Ohio in 2002 came closer to being a major nuclear event than most people realize. Multiple safety culture defense in depth barriers had failured at the NPP and at NRC. This allowed the event to occur.

    In 2003 I presented to NRC [was invited to present] I outlined a proper assessment approach for safety culture. It was ignored. In 2004 GAO told NRC to develop a proper assessment approach. NRC handed the problem over to the industry lobby group NEI, historically against NRC doing such assessments. This is the fox guarding itself.

    Here is the definition of nuclear safety culture that the fox first developed in order to develop the assessment method:

    Nuclear Safety Culture:
    “An organization’s values and behaviors—modeled by its leaders and internalized by its members—that serve to make nuclear safety the overriding priority.”

    Sounds pretty good right? But look again – it is not a real definition. It includes 2/3 of what is beling defined “nuclear safety” in the definition. Try substituting “Ice cream”

    Ice Cream Culture:
    “An organization’s values and behaviors—modeled by its leaders and internalized by its members—that serve to make ice cream the overriding priority.”

    How about surfing?

    Surfing Culture:
    “An organization’s values and behaviors—modeled by its leaders and internalized by its members—that serve to make surfing the overriding priority.”

    So we see this is a non-definition, and by default [by default of the regulator NRC] the Industry now has developed what it has wanted for a very long time – non-regulation of safety culture.

    So Susan, If you want to see what a proper “operational” definition for nuclear safety culture looks like [this is not NRCs new one which I helped develop] and if you want to discuss what DOE could do with university grants to promote safety culture [something I have already recommended to the new Japan regulator NRA] you can email me:


    Right now, I feel we are waiting for a US Chernobyl or Fukushima to take any real action. Why learn the hard way?

    You could view my 45 min Dec 6 presentation at PSU [link below] phone is quicker.


  2. Terrific insights which have very broad application. I just returned from a Governance Institute conference for hospital boards and physicians. Cooperation, Information Sharing, Shareholder Engagement ,and Corrective Action on a very large scale are going to be required of the entire Heath Care System to avoid its very own Great Recession -sized train wreck.

    Failure is definitely an option for all of our major institutions

  3. Nice column! A starting point in fixing our broken system would be to have nonpartisan commissions draw up Congressional lines instead of the current, ridiculous gerrymandering. See for example the district that the Republican first termer from the coal country now represents thanks to GOP redistricting to make him safe; his district looks like a snake, much as the original Gerrymandered district did. When Congressmen and women are in safe districts, they can take more extreme positions and get away with it. Indeed, they’re encouraged to do this because if they act too moderate, the base will find a challenger to go after them. It’s a system that is almost the opposite of what existed in Eisenhower’s day, when there were many liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and ample room for serious conversation, horsetrading, and compromise.

  4. As a nuclear engineer, I find your idea interesting of using “continuous improvement” regarding Congress and the Executive Branch. Certainly that would be a significant cultural shift (though very beneficial). It would be an interesting change of affairs if such a self-improving culture could be brought to fruition. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  5. Widening gap is the operative here. You have pointed up the divide between the elected representatives and the people well. It is decidedly an “us” and “them” situation, and the culture in which it grows springs, in huge part, from the Supreme Court decision that has allowed money to displace constitutional responsibility, wealth to displace morality. Get out your chain mail and swords; the dark ages loom! Keep up the good work, Susan!

  6. Susan…once again you completely nailed it…The absurd “divide and conquer” techniques that are being displayed is tragic. I have never (and I am 57 years old) seen such division and lack of responsibility to the people of America.

    Your statement, “Recent political campaigns in America have evoked reactions across the country that range from anger and frustration to indifference or denial.” is absolutely the TRUTH. When is Washington going to remember they are working for the people as Public Officials – NOT the Corporations and lobbyists?

    When Romney announced his vision of seeking a Trillion dollars MORE for WAR (huh?)… While G.W. Bush speaks Nov 1 to deliver the keynote address at the Cayman Alternative Investment Summit in the Cayman off-shore investment “how-to” conference…WOW!

    What about America and the Global view…What about the Global perception of some of our Public officials outside this country? The rest of the world has to be snickering in dis-belief…

    We all know your amazing Grandfather tried so desperately to warn us…
    Ike was right, AGAIN!

    You, dear Susan, are right on the pulse of all things good !

    As I always say to you…

    Thanks Susan for being who you are !!!

  7. From the NY Times 8/2012
    Pop quiz. Which of the following countries does not guarantee its citizens the right to vote? Is it:
    A) Iran
    (B) Libya
    (C) The United States
    (D) All of the above.
    If you guessed “all of the above,” you’re right. Yes, the United States is one of only a handful of nations whose constitution does not explicitly provide the right to vote. (Singapore is another, but it doesn’t even allow you to chew gum on the street.)

  8. “Sign no pledges” is excellent advice. Our country is best served by electing representatives who have good judgement. Good judgement is developed through experiencing increasing responsibility. People who have shown good judgement at lower levels are promoted or elected to higher levels. A state representative who has good judgement becomes a leader and later a governor and then perhaps a senator or a the President. Increasingly elected officials come from nowhere and represent a narrow interest. Their campaigns are paid for by themselves or a narrow interest group.

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