From Carlos, Mike, and Zach
When studying the oil spill disaster that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, we wanted to examine if upstream engagement had been used. This led to our question and study of the BP oil spill:
What forms of upstream engagement did BP use, if any?
This is a very important question, in that it evaluates how well BP was able to engage public contributions to solving the problem, shows the importance of upstream engagement, and evaluates whether or not upstream engagement is actually effective.
When we began researching, we were very skeptical that BP used any upstream engagement. We thought that BP would want to use only BP-employed scientists and engineers in solving the problem. When we started this research we constrained our research to only BP press releases, direct quotes from BP representatives, and the BP suggestion website.
So what is upstream engagement? It is defined as public engagement that occurs at an early stage in a process, thus policy changes and major decisions can occur before they are set in stone. Upstream engagement is required for the main reason that the public no longer blindly has faith in scientists. The ever skeptical public should have a say in developing technologies and thus upstream engagement seems like the solution.
Some scientists argue for upstream engagement stating that it is the ethical thing to do, while other scientists are skeptical and point out that upstream engagement still assumes the linear transmission model and thus it is oversimplified.
The 1989 Exxon Valdez Spill in Alaska is a good comparison to the 2010 BP Oil Spill. Exxon had no outside public relations consultants, dismissed involvement of environmental activists, and they refused assistance from local residents in cleanup effort. Also, top Exxon executives declined to comment until a week after the spill, and they shifted the blame to Alaska and the federal government. Many criticized Exxon for their inability to provide substantial information quickly, and no form of upstream engagement was used in the cleanup process.
An important note to make is that The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (passed promptly after the Exxon Valdez spill) does not require any forms of upstream engagement with the public, thus any engagement by BP was voluntary.
Press releases showed that BP took advice and suggestions from outside industry experts in regards to cleaning the spill and shutting the well down. Their plans were also technically reviewed by scientists and engineers outside of BP. A quote from the VP, Kent Wells, said that BP formed a "dream team" of top scientists and engineers in the industry. Quotes from other spokespersons stated that BP was taking ideas from lots of places, including public suggestions, and that it was not just a PR stunt.
The most significant forms of upstream engagement came in the form of a toll-free tipline and a suggestion website. The tipline received over 72,000 calls, and the website received over 20,000 ideas within a month of the oil spill occurring. To sort suggestions, BP reviewed then assigned each idea into one of three categories: not possible/feasible, already considered, and feasible. Anyone who submitted a suggestion received a reply about their idea. Of the 20,000 ideas posted online, BP stated that 100 of them were feasible and under further review.
BP used upstream engagement, but it was impossible to tell if they actually considered public suggestions, or if it was just a publicity stunt. They did appear to take suggestions from other industry experts before executing their several different plans. In the past, upstream engagement has typically been used as a tool to evaluate new technologies (i.e. nanotechnology), where urgency is not an issue. In the case of the BP oil spill, action had to be taken immediately to stop the spill.
Therefore, considering BP's situation, it is hard to know exactly how effectively upstream engagement can be used. When a new design is required immediately to stop a spilling oil well, upstream engagement of the public may not be feasible or productive. Rather, experts in related fields should be contacted for ideas on how to fix the problem, and this is what BP appeared to do. BPs attempts at engaging the public may be an indication that corporate America is starting to understand the importance and advantages of upstream engagement.