David Ellwood on Acting in Time

Interviewed by Doug Gavel 10/4/2010

How citizens, policymakers and governments recognize and respond to pending disasters is the focus of a growing body of research at Harvard Kennedy School. The Acting in Time project was initiated by Dean David T. Ellwood, who argues that crises can often be mitigated, if not avoided altogether, through the committed efforts of enlightened leaders and engaged citizens who are able to mobilize the resources necessary to address looming problems before they become calamities. We spoke to Dean Ellwood after he returned from a recent trip to Asia, where he spoke on the issue to audiences in several countries.

Q. What are “acting in time” problems?

Ellwood: Some years back, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and there was a great deal of concern about how poorly local, state and federal authorities seemed to respond. And that was a great tragedy. But in many ways the greater tragedy was that it had been common knowledge that New Orleans was vulnerable to a hurricane, and yet no significant steps were taken to strengthen the dikes, which would have prevented the tragedy in the first place. This was a case in which if only we had acted in time, we would have prevented far greater costs.

And it turns out there is a whole set of problems, such as climate change for one example, in which there is overwhelming evidence that acting sooner rather than later will make a huge difference – and, in fact, if we don’t act in time, the problem will get much worse. Demographic changes, pandemics, nuclear nonproliferation – all of these are problems that countries around the world have to deal with and yet, for some reason, they are unable or unwilling to act.

Q. Why is this? Why don’t people and governments act in time?

Ellwood: The Acting in Time project based here at the Kennedy School seeks to glean a greater understanding of this phenomenon. There seem to be a number of components involved. Part of the problem is people; part of the problem is business; and part of the problem is government.

People are basically short-sighted; human beings tend to focus on the here and now, the things that we can easily control ourselves, not the big hard things. We’re very bad at thinking about problems in which there is uncertainty, in which scientists disagree, even if a vast majority of the scientific evidence tilts to one side, and even if we think “gee, if they’re right, we should do something.”

And there is also a tendency for people to look for others to hold responsible or to blame. So, China wants to blame the U.S. for failure to act on climate change because the U.S. essentially has the largest per capita carbon footprint in the world. The United States, in turn, wants to blame China because it is now the largest carbon producing nation and much of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions in the future is going to come from China. So, people are short-sighted and they often want to pass the blame.

Private enterprise is also a component. The business world is straightforward, based primarily around expanding profits, and when profits come at the cost of the environment, then business interests are often slow to act to change that. And what’s worse, at times, “acting in time” problems require sacrifice of some group or industry and those people who are being asked to sacrifice are usually quite visible, and so businesses or industries that are vulnerable to that kind of sacrifice are going to really aggressively oppose action. Those bearing the costs of acting in time often are far more concentrated and powerful than those who would benefit from action.

And finally, government. Governments face many challenges when it comes to acting in time. One of the most significant is that they tend to be short sighted due to the nature of election cycles. Oftentimes elected officials spend only two or maybe four years in office. Because of that, they might be inclined to kick the can down the road, and avoiding addressing serious problems that will require sacrifice today without producing any immediate benefits. Similarly even in one-party systems, there is very little payoff to reporting bad news or suggesting that governments act on something that is looming well into the distance.

Another problem is the structure of political parties which, in many settings, can produce bitter partisanship that only stymies constructive engagement. And then there is the case in which the government may not have the expertise or the knowledge or the necessary credibility to act. And the worst “acting in time” problems involve governments from many nations and jurisdictions. Each has incentives to blame others and to be a free rider.

Q: How can the Kennedy School contribute to this discussion and how can the Acting in Time project contribute?

Ellwood:  We have been able to bring together a group of scholars across the school and the university to look at these issues. The scholars by and large have focused on individual issues – climate change, pandemics, crisis management, and many others. Another group has examined the larger question of why we seem to act in time on some issues and not on others.

The project also seeks to learn about and highlight those cases in which economic, social, and political actors have been able to muster the will, the support and the resources necessary to confront a looming problem. A group of us have tried to examine those lessons – both in classes and through other sorts of activities.

Q: What were the primary messages on Acting in Time that you delivered during your recent trip to Asia?

Ellwood:  I was able to deliver my messages to a variety of different audiences in different countries throughout Asia. Some of the discussion focused on the problem, but I also focused on explaining what it is we can learn from those cases when we did act in time in order to guide our thinking about what strategies we might use in the future.

Here are two examples which demonstrate the capacity to act in time.

The first is the coordinated response to the ozone layer problem, which began emerging a couple of decades ago when scientists identified the problems posed by CFCs – chlorofluorocarbons – chemicals that were used in refrigerants. That issue is largely resolved now. It was resolved in part by successful efforts to draw a very vivid picture of a hole in the ozone layer. Nobody ever thought about the ozone layer; nobody cared about it particularly, but there was that picture of that hole and it kept getting larger and citizens and governments began understanding the seriousness of the problem. And action almost always requires making a future problem vivid today.

In this case, a private corporation helped craft a solution to the problem. DuPont chemicals developed an alternative to CFCs and therefore it suddenly had an interest in the outcome. This was an example of an acting in time problem which produced strange bedfellows – by that I mean people of different backgrounds coming together in unexpected ways. In this case, businesses worked together with environmentalists and government officials and pushed forward a solution.

Another example has been the very effective response to the H1N1 outbreak a couple of years ago. In many ways we were lucky because H1N1 proved not to be as dangerous as, say, avian flu was, although it was very contagious. Nonetheless, when Mexico first discovered the outbreak, the government there immediately addressed the issue. It recognized the scope of the problem, went public with that information, took some very strong steps locally that made a huge difference and hurt their own economy in the short run. All were examples of acting aggressively in time.

So there are a set of lessons that we take from these examples. The first is the need to take a looming problem and make it vivid today. If you’re really going to act in time, you’ve got to do that. The second is this notion of creating unusual alliances of actors that often work at cross purposes working together to find a solution to a common problem. And the third lesson boils down to the credibility of leadership. When you actually think about it, very few nations have an organization or a group or an individual with sufficient credibility necessary to galvanize the support needed to tackle a looming problem.

In the case of H1N1, the World Health Organization played that role. It had the information and credibility and accountability necessary to help identify and address the problem. So figuring out a way to nurture and preserve independent organizations that have real credibility is vital to acting in time.

The other component that makes it possible to act in time is inspired, courageous and effective leadership. It’s something that is absolutely critical all over the world, and it is a challenge facing almost every country. And these were the topics I explored during my trip to Asia.

Q: How does the issue resonate differently in different parts of the world?

Ellwood:  Certainly these topics resonate differently in different countries, depending, of course, on the culture, the economy and with the expectations of citizens. The mood in many developing countries in Asia and throughout the world is one of possibility. There’s so much excitement. There’s so much energy and enthusiasm about the future in contrast to the discontent being felt currently in the United States and Western Europe. So to some degree places in those settings are definitely ones where they may be more inclined to believe that they can come up with strategies to act in time.

I would also say that the response differs based on the nature of the government. If government is highly stable long-term, perhaps not classically democratic but stable nonetheless, it may take a longer-term perspective at times, which raises a hard question: are democracies good or bad for acting in time? And so those kinds of questions come up a lot. Now, it may be true that sometimes democracies are more short-sighted by nature; but on the other hand, when democracies actually decide to act, the credibility and the viability that comes with an elected government can create an impetus that is very hard to resist.

Q: Are there any other points you would like to make?

Ellwood: When you look around the world there clearly are these huge and challenging issues. Many of them cross boundaries. They cross the boundaries between business and government and civil society. They almost always cross international boundaries. It’s very hard to solve problems that cross these boundaries. Governments very much like to point the finger, just as people do, for blame or to ask someone else to take action. I think one of the great opportunities for a place like the Kennedy School is to train the kinds of leaders and the kinds of people that have the intelligence to see the problem, that have a focus on the long-term, not the here and now, that care about the public interest, not their private interest, but are also capable of understanding and working across those boundaries – between business, government and civil society, between different nations, even between different kinds of strategies for thinking about and different disciplines for exploring many kinds of problems.

I think one of the great things about the Harvard Kennedy School is that we do have that capacity to bring those things together. I think the great challenge for us is to take advantage of those capacities at a time when frankly we desperately need to act in time.

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