Assuring Institutional Constancy: Requisite for Managing Long-Lived Hazards

Article excerpt

What role do demands for constancy play in the operations of public agencies? Institutional constancy of agencies and firms is discussed as a concept and an increasingly important political requirement for the operation of hazardous systems in the United States. Situations that increase demands for it are outlined and a basis for analysis and improving constancy is proposed.

Managing large organizational systems poses extraordinary challenges for public institutions when those systems promise substantial benefits but are also so technically or financially hazardous in their design that grievous harm could befall producers and citizens.(1) Not only are such institutions subject to the expected demands for effective performance, they are also pressed to operate at nearly failure-free levels--well beyond those expected for most organizations operating systems of lessor hazard.(2) When these systems are capable of large-scale and/or widely distributed harm that may not be detected for several generations, familiar processes of accountability may falter, and the public is rightly concerned that operating and regulating organizations be worthy of the public's trust.(3)

Two characteristics of hazardous, large technical systems undermine more typical means of accountability: high demands for knowledge necessary to evaluate performance; and the long time period involved in determining success or failure.(4) In consequence, apprehensive publics seek assurances that these institutions will be uncompromising in the pursuit of the highest quality operations through the relevant lifetimes of the systems in question. This means that the quality of both external relations and internal operations should reassure interested communities and stakeholders that their views will be taken seriously and that organizational processes will result in immediate adjustment to potential error. When harmful effects may be visited upon future generations, the concern for assurances of continuity or institutional constancy takes on increasing importance. We refer mainly to public organizations although the argument applies with nearly as much force to the private sector in the United States, especially those firms responding to the strong economic incentives for short-term gains and deferral of costs.

Indeed, institutional constancy--faithful, unswerving adherence to commitments and effective actions over many work generations--competes with institutional flexibility as an important public value in some policy domains. Certainly current leaders of some institutions are pressed to assure the public (especially opinion leaders) that, as a condition of winning approval and resources to initiate or continue programs, their agencies and corporate contractors can credibly be expected to keep agreements and commitments with potentially affected communities far into the future. The policy domains, for example, of radioactive waste management, the control of nuclear weapons, the management of water and biological resources, and the extraction of mineral resources present this situation in extreme forms. These hazards are likely to require active attention for hundreds of years. In some cases, mine closures are now designed assuming the need for "perpetual monitoring." And radioactive wastes may be highly dangerous for over 200,000 years, while some forms of dangerous chemicals never lose their capacity for harm. In such policy domains, there are often a number of quite contentious issues. Institutional constancy is likely to be among them. Assuring constancy would be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for arriving at commitments and agreements in the first instance.(5)

Without such assurances, intense conflict is likely and the many legal means available to paralyze threatening programs could be employed. That is, the U.S. adversarial political culture and formal legal structure make it possible for groups with intensely held views to delay, often substantially modify, or halt programs they fear or with which they disagree (see gray box for examples). …