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Public Management, Viet Nam Seabees and Complexity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Gerald Andrews Emison
December 16, 2016

teacher-1013970_640Today’s public managers routinely face complex situations that are rarely simple and straightforward. Complexity theory and statistics can yield insights through computation. But we can also look to successful institutions for insight in coping with complexity. One such useful institution is the U.S. Navy Seabees.

The Seabees are the legendary Navy construction forces. They build bases for the Navy and Marine Corps. Their work in Viet Nam illustrates the use of practical adaptation in the face of enduring complexity and chaos. Get the job done was the first order of business, so a willingness to adapt and to adjust to emerging situations made the Seabees a military embodiment of pragmatism.

My first experience with public management came as a Seabee in Viet Nam. It changed my life. As a university trained engineer I preferred theoretically grounded, elegantly consistent and technically sophisticated solutions to problems. What I learned in the Seabees was that effectiveness required informing intellectual rigor with practical action. When faced with thankless and complex tasks, theory and rational planning were useful but so were the actual experiences that lie at the core of pragmatism.

Probably none of the Seabees with whom I served in Viet Nam had ever heard of John Dewey (Dewey, 1990) or Charles Peirce (Peirce, 1990). But they applied Dewey’s and Peirce’s pragmatism daily. Facing torrential rains, impossible deadlines, material shortages and an enemy that was resolute and fierce, the Seabees lived up to their motto “We build; we fight.” McAdam (2016) has explored lessons in private sector management from the Seabees, and the public sector can similarly learn from the Seabees. Here are half-dozen approaches that worked in the Seabees’ complex world of Viet Nam.

1.               Be Clear What the Job Is

In complex work settings, it is very easy to allow the immediate to drive out the important. Construction in a combat situation was unique since we had to build, but to build, we often had to fight. It was vital to keep focused on the building activity even as we fought.

2.     When the Situation Changes, Adapt

Very few tasks in the public sector face the same conditions throughout the project. And public managers rarely have the ideal materials. Effectiveness requires adaptability; a commitment to the overall mission rather than the use of particular methods is essential. Almost every project we undertook couldn’t be built as designed; existing conditions required adjustment from the original designs.

3.               Know Your Stuff

There is no substitute for being skilled at the requisite tasks. Seabees did dangerous and dirty work, but they all had foundational construction skill training as well as tactical combat training. Both types of skills were necessary to complete the job. Whether it is conducting a complex economic analysis or guarding a combat perimeter, knowing how to do the job matters.

4.               Be Cross Trained

Much of public service today requires specialized skills. But actual circumstances often require skills that do not exactly match those available. Flexibility is essential and having related knowledge can improve performance. When building a project that required a steel reinforced concrete pad no steelworkers were available. Since the carpenters had been trained in tying in the steel reinforcement, they were able to complete the work without those holding the primary skills.

5.               Depend on Your Buddy

Very few tasks in public service can be accomplished by a single individual. Our Seabees knew that helping each other paid dividends for all projects. While one Seabee struggled to lift a prefabricated wall, two could do so easily.

6.               Don’t Let Rank Interfere with Common Sense

The Seabees were skilled construction workers with extensive experience and their officers were civil engineers. Officers who learned to ask “Senior Chief, what do you think?” quickly found out that experience can improve theoretical knowledge. Knowing when to access this experience without getting tangled in rank showed a commitment to the task rather than to hierarchy.

The complex world of today’s public management is vastly different from the conditions of Viet Nam. But one verity exists across all these situations. No matter the job, no matter the preparations, the actual conditions most likely will require changing approaches and skills. Effectiveness through adaptation in the face of chaos is a lesson the Seabees have shown us how to learn.

Author: Jerry Emison is a professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University. He served with the Seabees during the Viet Nam War and retired from the Senior Executive Service of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners and a registered professional engineer. He may be reached at [email protected].

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