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27 January 2011

Weather intelligence – snowfall edition

Reaction to snowfall in the greater DC metropolitan area has always been legendarily poor, like many other matters related to transportation investments, traffic conditions, and driving behaviors. Some insightful commentators have linked these persistent problems to clashing cultural expectations in a city where most hail from other parts, a hypothesis that seems particularly consistent when considering drivers in winter conditions. The mix of general inexperience clashing with a smaller number of more aggressive “snow ego” drivers whose assumptions based on road conditions in harsher but less congested climes rapidly prove seriously flawed.

However, the effects of recent weather events on regional movement have been particularly amplified by poor timing – and arguably worse decisionmaking – regarding government operating status. This key announcement also drives many of the private sector closures in the area, due not least to the predominance of government contracting activities in the local economy. The latter also tends to display a noticeable lag effect – accepting closure announcements, but typically also facing commitments to meetings and other deliverable deadlines that force many individuals to push boundaries of transit windows based on clock schedules rather than weather conditions.

The question for many students of the art and science of intelligence then becomes whether the clearly suboptimal to outright catastrophic consequences of such decisions is influenced by the decisonmakers information environment, and in what fashion do any such influences play out. In short, the selection of appropriate operating status changes - open / unscheduled leave, early release or delayed start, or closure – is in many ways a classic warning problem. Like many intelligence issues, however, the information and analysis provided to the decisionmaker regarding “threat” action is only one aspect of the decision problem. The forecast of an event hostile to friendly assets must be weighed against both operational information, operational objectives, and environmental factors. These are potentially very costly decisions in either direction – cost if closure or delay is unwarranted, and time / morale / safety if individuals are forced into travel during dangerous weather conditions. While the most prominent of these decisions during any weather event is that made by the Office of Personnel Management, the challenge is replicated hundreds of times in school districts, community centers, and smaller businesses. In fact, OPM is so influential precisely because of the number of other decisionmakers – both organizational and individual – who follow the “official” lead, out of deliberate reaction to signaling, litigation considerations, or herd effects.

It is generally far easier to reconstruct the substantive content and timeline of information available to the decisionmaker regarding weather events than other types of intelligence challenges, which make these cases more amenable to further study. Further, at least in the context of Washington DC area forecasts, weather reporting is also often communicated with explicit analytic confidence, and updates framed in terms of changes from last forecast. However, the political issues involved in after-action review of any specific decision may greatly complicate the discovery of what specific information, or even what general information sources, were actually consulted by a decisionmaker prior to operating status determination. Moreso the challenge of understand what considerations drove these decisions in the calculus of cost and face, although we see hints in public statements.

While the specifics of yesterday’s incident might indeed make for a good case study, given the intense dislocation and exceptional cost it is more likely that after action review may occur before a Congressional committee rather than a more academic forum. And to give Dr. Agrell his due, while not every weather event and associated decision requirement is an intelligence event, the impact of these events in the National Capital Region certainly seems to cross that threshold, particularly for those carrying homeland security “all hazard” accounts – and likely also for adversaries seeking to advance denial and deception or other operational actions which count on increased friction within friendly intelligence machinery. If nothing else, however, these remain useful examples for consideration in the abstract of intelligence theory.

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