Organization, Presence: Adaptive Management in the Trump Administration

Published: 10:00 PM GMT on February 03, 2017

Organization, Presence: Adaptive Management in the Trump Administration

Once again, I woke feeling great. Decided I need to think about how to manage my career or, well perhaps, what’s left of it. Think I am going back to my EOS editorial and see if any of what I said made sense.

I am one of those people who feel that there is value of organization and management in our science enterprise. This has been an albatross around the neck of my career; I again and again find myself wandering around on deck imagining how to organize the vital fragments. I have this tedious mantra that organization emerges from complex systems, and that we can do things to seed, fertilize, and accelerate that emergence. It’s not hard to collect scientists together, but it is hard to organize scientists.

We are at a moment when organization will be critical to how the U.S. science enterprise appears in 4 years, 8 years, and 12 years. What I am going to attempt to do in this blog is to think about how to monitor and manage what, presently, feels like convulsions from one outrage to the next.

President Trump: I have seen several analyses of President’s Trump’s psychology, personality, motivations, tactics, and intents. I especially like the articles that say that President Trump’s logic and reason defy understanding. These are people looking to use their models of logic and reason, perhaps even norms of behavior they consider to be established decorum and protocol, and they find no way to frame President Trump’s behavior into compact, rational models.

What we know is that President Trump makes statements that outrage, disrupt, and divert. The statements are often dismissive, insulting, and hurtful. Some statements seem contradictory; many, however, are quite consistent what Mr. Trump has said that he would do. They could be viewed as chaos, “behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.”

We, also, know that we cannot control what Mr. Trump says, and it is unlikely we will evolve to an understanding that allows intuition of his motivations, logic, and reason. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that if we get to a point where we can predict what will come next, then he will change. Being unpredictable is an attribute; chaos is a style of management, of leadership, of negotiation.

What we can control is how we evaluate and respond.

When trying to manage chaos generated by a leader, it is important to monitor the difference between what is being said and what is being done. What is the difference between words and behavior? In the case of a large organization or, in this case, a government, it is essential to look at those who are actually carrying out the operations on the ground – the behavior.

In my course on climate change, I have a short module on argumentation and rhetoric. Understanding the tactics and motivation of, for instance, someone opposed to making greenhouse gas reductions is critical. The motivation is disruption of policy considered, perhaps, damaging to their industry. The tactic is to take on the credibility, legitimacy and robustness of scientists and science-based investigation. While scientists engage in the reaction and diversion defending scientific knowledge and their personal integrity, the disruption of policy development is achieved. Scientists become engaged in efforts to better communicate and complete their knowledge-based results, but the other side of the argument is not really interested in a knowledge-based reconciliation.

One of the most usable analyses of Trump’s use of language I have seen comes from linguist George Lakoff. In a radio interview, Lakoff deconstructs Trump’s tactics. Two common tactics are diversion, to turn your attention away from the important issue, and deflection, attacking and discrediting the messenger.

Chaos as a management tool is well known. Some of us at NASA in the 1990s viewed Administrator Dan Goldin as a practitioner of chaos management. The NASA history states Goldin was taking on a “bloated bureaucracy” through “aggressive management reform.” Familiar words. (I like to remind people that Goldin served as the NASA Administrator the entire Clinton-Gore Administration, with large reductions to the Earth Observing System budget. Partisanship is often not so easy.)

Deflection, diversion, and disruption are tactics of chaos management. They are counterintuitive to the definition of “managed.” They offend our norms of diplomacy, protocol, and decorum. We are affronted and outraged. We respond at an emotional level, and that allows those waiting for the diversion, the operatives, to go into action.

What we can control is how we evaluate and respond. Organization and discipline will be critical attributes for an effective response to the Trump administration’s efforts to deconstruct not only President Obama’s climate actions, but also to weaken a generation of environmental law. Critical in effective response is to depersonalize that which is dismissive, insulting, and hurtful.

What is most clear in the Trump environmental agenda is to damage and diminish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At the top of the list are Obama’s Clean Power Plan and elimination of the language of management of carbon dioxide and climate change from the EPA’s public interface. Though commanding outrage, these changes are essentially distractions. They are relatively easy to do, and are in the big picture, largely inconsequential. More consequential will be attacks of underlying environmental law.

I have a growing collection of articles on the EPA archived here. An article that I note from the Washington Post is entitled, “Trump might revisit environmental rules going back decades, transition adviser says.” The article focuses on EPA transition team lead Myron Ebell, and ends with:

In an interview with E&E News Thursday, Ebell raised the idea of cutting the agency’s roughly 15,000-person workforce by two-thirds. Speaking to The Washington Post, he said that he thought cutting the EPA by either a third or a half would be “an aspirational goal,” though he added that he did not know whether the new administration would embrace it.

“I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen, that’s a goal,” Ebell said, noting that roughly half of the EPA’s budget is passed through to the states. “The states do most of the work, particularly when it comes to air and water programs.”

During the campaign, Trump raised the prospect of eliminating the EPA, saying at one point, “what they do is a disgrace.” At other points, he suggested scaling it back significantly. “We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.”

Ebell noted that Trump would probably propose deeper cuts to the agency than would actually be enacted, because lawmakers are often reluctant to slash the budgets of agencies they oversee. “It you want to achieve significant domestic budget cuts across the government, you’re going to take on appropriators by requesting big cuts.”


Mr. Ebell is, perhaps, representative of the behavior, as opposed to the words, of President Trump’s administration. He has years of steady message; he understands politics; he has stated, directly, what he would like to see happen. My list of articles suggests it is happening.

One response of the climate community is Climate Deregulation Tracker:

About the Climate Deregulation Tracker

President Donald Trump has stated that he intends to undo most or all of the Obama administration’s efforts to address climate change. Many members of Congress have expressed similar intentions.

The Climate Deregulation Tracker monitors efforts undertaken by the Trump administration to scale back or wholly eliminate federal climate mitigation and adaptation measures. The tracker also monitors congressional efforts to repeal statutory provisions, regulations, and guidance pertaining to climate change, and to otherwise undermine climate action. Finally, the tracker will monitor any countervailing efforts to advance climate change mitigation and adaptation in the face of these deregulatory actions.

The tracker will also provide links to related news items, such as updates about federal agency appointments, the removal of climate data from federal websites, and federal actions with indirect implications for climate change.


The Climate Deregulation Tracker helps collect information, but its impact ultimately relies on the emergence of other organized responses to oppose the degradation of our environmental law.

That is more than enough for this blog entry. I fall into the pit of diffuse message.

The climate community, the climate-science community, is not just climate scientists. In fact, our community might not even be majority climate scientists. There are practitioners, professionals, and scientists of all sorts, natural and social, vested in the climate community. There are many activities emerging in our community. The challenge is to focus some of these activities to our behavior on the ground and not to get lost in our words. Because when there is chaos, there is not just opportunity for those who are, perhaps, on the side of chaos.

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I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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