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The Corps of Engineers’ renewed focus on risk-based decision making

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

Stephen Temmel
Stephen Temmel at CMANC

Last June, James Dalton, Director of Civil Works with the Army Corps of Engineers, issued a memorandum designed to help the Corps of Engineers streamline several processes.  The focus of this memo was to encourage greater reliance on risk-based decision making and more focus on proper areas of decision making at levels within USACE.


“The desired outcome is to identify opportunities for enhanced project delivery and increased organizational efficiency and effectiveness by reducing redundancies and delegating authority for decision making to the most practical and appropriate level….  I intend to operationalize risk-informed decision making at all levels…."

[Goals include:]

  1. “Embrace and operationalize risk-informed decision making”

  2. “Make, justify, and document decisions at the most appropriate levels”

  3. “Synchronize headquarters functions to support MSC and district project delivery”

  4. “Integrate and synchronize agency policy and guidance”

On January 18, I spoke to the California Marine Affairs and Navigation Conference (CMANC) about the issues raised in this memorandum.  CMANC is a consortium of California harbors, ports and marine interest groups that advocates for projects often overseen by the Corps of Engineers.

The problem facing USACE is that too many issues were being elevated to Washington instead of being resolved at the District or even the Division levels.  This was likely caused by a reliance on “Risk Avoidance” rather than “Risk Management” in decision making.

CMANC executive director James Haussener began by noting my recent Dawson blog on Takings that I had 30 years experience as District Counsel for the Los Angeles District Army Corps of Engineers and wondered if my past experience differed.  It certainly did.  At CMANC, I presented several examples of how controversial decisions had been made at the lowest possible level, Corps Districts.

District Commanders are trained as Combat Engineers with the need to execute a Mission after analyzing alternatives and risks. Their goal is to choose the alternative with the lowest risk while still accomplishing the mission.  Typically, risk avoidance is not an option.

Operating and Support Managers within the District supported that process by engaging in risk management decisions within their scope of responsibility and/or providing the District Commanders with risk based management alternatives, rather than utilizing risk avoidance.  The common thread during my experience as District Counsel and since I retired are District Commanders.  They were and are still trained to make risk based management decisions.

But during the past decade, several organization changes have occurred.  Before, the District Counsel, Chief of Contracting, Resource Management Officer, and Human Resources worked FOR the Commander.  Now, all of these organizations report to their Division counterparts – they work for them, not the Commander.

Also, in the past, District Commanders were our “Bosses.”  They did the hiring and firing and rated our performance. Now these functions are performed at the Division level.  That inherently requires coordinating much more closely with the Division and thus getting it involved in the decision making process.

Divisions in turn now apparently coordinate more closely with Headquarters getting it involved.  As a result, in my opinion, the more fingerprints involved in the decision document process, the more likely such decisions will be made at a higher level.  This causes delays and higher costs in project execution and is a major concern.

Mr. Dalton’s intent to change this culture by using training and other methods both vertically and horizontally throughout the Corps organization should be applauded.  But it remains to be seen whether civilian members will accept making risk based management decisions with solely their name on the document.

In my opinion, success for Mr. Dalton’s initiative would be greatly enhanced by reorganizing back to the previous structure where the District/Division Commanders were the “Boss” rather than merely a “Client.”  That system worked for decades and should be embraced again.

Steve Temmel Senior Advisor

For 30 years, Steve served as District Counsel for the Los Angeles District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For more about his legal career with the Corps of Engineers, click here.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.


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