As part of our endless quest in the face of slow news days to provide you relevant info on how to deal with the forces facing correction sentencing as we approach 2020, we will every Sunday provide the familiar “book review.” Well, not so familiar, actually. We intend to focus on books that don’t fit into the reigning “inside the silo” paradigm that has so successfully gotten us where we are today. Sometimes that may mean corrections and/or sentencing books that challenge the existing mantras. Other times, it may mean books that don’t even touch on corrections and/or sentencing but have significant relevance that we would otherwise miss by insisting on staying inside our silo. And, so you won’t have to worry about bookmarking or coming back and scrolling through archives when you want to check something we said, we will gladly post each review over on the left-hand side of the blog for easy reference. Please. Don’t thank us. The astonishment in your eyes is enough.
As we’ve focused on the multiple enormous economic, environmental, social, and institutional challenges on our Corrections Sentencing horizon swirling together to form The Perfect Storm, we admittedly tend to highlight the negative rather than the options we have to deal with it all. We do try to let you know about promising efforts and experiments, hopeful developments in each of the areas, but the ration may seem skewed by our wanting to drum home the reality and seriousness of what we face. So it’s time for us to talk more about the “deal with it all” part, to consider what we will need to do and structure to get to the other side of The Storm with maximum public safety from our Corrections Sentencing activities.
To start, we’re reviewing Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy’s Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back to uncover some basic principles of how systems either do or don’t manage the kinds of engulfing swirls that are only in their opening stages right now. Then into this week we will look at what those principles, offered generally by the authors, might specifically translate into for us in Corrections Sentencing. The result will hopefully be a bare-bones guide for at least thinking about what successful facilities and operations may look like by 2020.
Zolli is the idea guy behind this book and apparently directs something called PopTech, a “global innovation network.” We’re old and clueless about such things, but the depth, background, and thought that have gone into this book say that he’s probably really good at what he does. The “global” and “network” tell us that he sees systemically and nonlinearly, which separates him from 99% of the thought that goes into Corrections Sentencing policy and most other policy as well. We’ll do a quick summary of his general ideas, then we’ll pull it together at the end to set up what we’ll be applying during the week.
As often as we invoke “inside” and “outside the silo” to advocate for dissolution of blinkered paradigms and perspectives, you’ll see why we immediately tuned into this quote: “One hallmark of [major disruptions and disasters] is that they reveal the dependencies between spheres that are more often studied and discussed in isolation from one another.” Like the ways weather, energy, water, and their related consequences will determine what we’re able to do as they change dramatically in years ahead. And given the frequency of our citing the metaphor of “white water rafting” to describe how we’re transitioning from relatively placid and predictable rowing on a relatively calm and known river to the sharp, sudden, unpredictable, and dangerous waters of the rapids, you won’t be surprised that we were nodding when we read: “If we cannot control the volatile tides of change, we can learn to build better boats. We can design—and redesign—organizations, institutions, and systems to better absorb disruption, operate under a wider variety of conditions, and shift more fluidly from one circumstance to the next.” IOW, we need to focus on “resilience.”
What is “resilience”? Well, despite differences in specific contexts, it can generally be defined as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.” For us that means the capacity to maintain maximum public safety and a commitment to real justice (not the narrowly, media and special interest driven versions too prevalent in recent years) in the face of even tighter budgets and even more external and internal pressures. The strategies developed and highlighted through the book include: “ensuring that there are sufficient reserves available to any given system; or diversifying its inputs; or collecting better, real-time data about its operations and performance; or enabling greater autonomy for its constituent parts; or designing firebreaks so that a disturbance in on part does not disrupt the whole.”
Being a systems and network guy, Zolli understands that you can never do just one thing, as they say. Whatever you do one place or to one thing will cause changes elsewhere that too frequently then also have to be remedied. To keep from being overwhelmed, resilient systems and organizations “employ tight feedback mechanisms to determine when an abrupt change or critical threshold is nearing.” He also understands that too tight coupling of the components of a network or system can bring everything down if one thing goes down. So developing your system so that operations are modular, able to function pretty much without coupling if necessary, will be very helpful in challenging times. Failure in one component will not mean failure of all. But well-designed systems will also feature interoperability, that is, the ability to combine and work together. Zolli’s world will not preclude all the modules still being able to “cluster” and “swarm” as necessary to get things done in the more traditional ways.
What’s interesting about Zolli’s perspective is the tentative and probabilistic nature of what he describes, the recognition that the set and routine procedures we are familiar with (and prefer!!) will not hold as we bounce along in the rapids. The approach to white water is to change on the fly as the water moves you along and even to learn from your failures, which are seen useful and opportunities to learn. That doesn’t mean that you should welcome escapes from facilities, but you get the idea.
Zolli doesn’t ignore the personal relationships side of all this. Key to the flexibility and experimentation that he advocates will be trust, cooperation, reciprocity, and diversity of people and ideas. In particular, with relevance to our Corr Sent future, he emphasizes the importance of strong communities. And what he calls “translational leaders,” the folks connecting constituencies inside and outside the silos, developing necessary networks, knowledge, agendas, etc., into a coherent system and narrative to guide values and operations. These aren’t “czars,” dictating, but enablers of “adaptive governance” that stay upright as much and as best as possible in the raging river of change.
The “white water” concept is more fully on display in this quote: “The deeper lesson is that to improve resilience we often need to work in more than one mode, one domain, and one scale at a time—we have to think about the aspects of a system that move both more slowly and more quickly than the one we are interested in, or examine aspects that are, at once, more granular and more global.” Not easy to do, obviously, not the least of which because of the politics of such contexts, even when the political leadership is solid. [Insert your own comment here about the state of such things today.] He gets well the situation we in Corrections Sentencing reform face: “[Preparing for the changes coming] involves trading away the certainty of short-term efficiency gains for the mere possibility of avoiding or surviving a hypothetical future emergency which may never materialize.” If this book has a major shortcoming, it is in its general failure to describe how to overcome this latter problem. But it may not be overcome-able so that may not be a failure at all.
Zolli and Healy back up their analyses with discussions and real-life examples of what they mean by systems/networks that can be robust enough to function yet fragile enough not to stultify themselves, of those “clusters” forming and unforming to deal more effectively with their changing environments, of the resiliency of individuals and communities in adopting flexible and cooperative patterns of interaction in the face of change, of the learning of individuals and communities of the means to cope with those changes more effectively through openness to and acceptance of reality and the diversity of each other; and of the importance and characteristics of those “translational leaders.”
Not sure if Zolli or Healy (the professional writer apparently brought in to help) is responsible for phrases like “vacation from history” or living “in a world devoid of consequences” that apply to our recent American history, with plenty of resources to waste, to indulge ourselves, to pursue ultimately harmful paths. Oops, did we just describe our last four decades of Corrections Sentencing policy, too? In any case, those are smack-on descriptions that detail what we now have to overcome as a nation and as a field/profession. Too much is happening, too much awaits. As we say, the tired and untrue are already being seen as much more dangerous. Wait until the budgets go down more and the costs rise beyond our current comprehension.
Zolli is aware of all this ignorance (not stupidly, just being ignorant) of the threatening future reality. “In spite of this, surprisingly few communities or organizations have any kind of structure in place to think broadly and proactively about the fragilities and potential disruptions that confront them. This has to change.” [Duh.] “Today, it’s unthinkable for an organization of any meaningful size not to continuously monitor its financial or supply chain risk; soon it will be equally unthinkable not to scan for a broader array of potential disruptions, from environmental issues such as carbon, water, energy, and climate risks to internal cultural factors like levels of cooperation and trust, and social issues such as the health and well-being of the communities these organization operate in.”
Can we do it? If, according to Zolli, we “embrace adhocracy,” that is, “informal team roles, limited focus on standard operating procedures, deep improvisation, rapid cycles, selective decentralization, the empowerment of specialist teams, and a general intolerance of bureaucracy.” The effectiveness of “adhocracy” depends greatly on data, reliable and consistently available data on performance and outcomes, particularly data that can be modeled efficiently for projections and simulations. Another more minor failing of this book is the authors’ lack of attention to all the problems with models and projections that exist today in abundant display and lack of call for constant feedback and replication to verify findings, something they emphasize in other ways other places.
In the end, they do acknowledge the tentative nature of their discussion and recommendations. “. . . we must remember that there are no finish lines here and no silver bullets. Resilience is always, perhaps maddeningly, provisional, and its insistence toward holism, toward longer-term thinking, and less-than-peak efficiency represent real political challenges. Many efforts to achieve it will fail, and even a wildly successful effort to boost it will fade, as new forces of change are brought to bear on a system. Resilience must continuously be refreshed and recommitted to. Every effort at resilience buys us not certainty, but another day, another chance.”
So how and what can we in Corr Sent take from all this? What can we apply? Well, let’s start with the basic questions:
“What causes one system to break and another to rebound? How much change can a system absorb and still retain its integrity and purpose? What characteristics make a system adaptive to change? In an age of constant disruption, how do we build in better shock absorbers for ourselves, our communities, companies, economies, societies, and the planet?”
Okay, we in Corr Sent probably can’t save the planet, but we might be able to pitch in for the rest, can’t we? We’ll start that conversation in more detail this week.