The big homeland security story of the week has ended up being Sec. Chertoff’s announcement about the FY 2006 UASI grants on Tuesday, which has elicited a range of reactions around the country, both positive and negative. I’ve written about this issue in several posts this week.
There are a few key points on this topic that I haven’t really seen brought out in this debate, however.
First, depending upon your source, there was a $4 billion to $7 billion backlog of appropriated but unspent homeland security grant funds in the pipeline as of the summer of 2005. This fact runs absolutely contrary to the conventional wisdom that money is being wasted on dumptrucks and leather jackets, and suggests a miserly disregard for improving homeland security across the country. What’s the truth – is DHS a wastrel or a miser?
And I’ve yet to see a good analysis of why so much money is sitting there in the Treasury unspent. Is it because the feds are holding tight on the pursestrings? Is it because the processes are broken? Is it because states and/or cities are hoarding the funds once they get them? An answer to this question would be a useful addition to the debate that we’re having on risk and grant funding.
Second, I keep getting drawn back to this comment by Sec. Chertoff at the press conference on Tuesday:
Let me give you an example, in terms of some of just the raw numbers.
The 2005 data that we considered in making our evaluations about eligibility this year occupied roughly 43,000 Excel spreadsheet cells and included 2 million calculations. That’s 2005. This year, 2006, the data would occupy over 30 million Excel spreadsheet cells and would include 3.2 billion calculations.
So that gives you an idea of the extent to which we are getting ever more particular and granular in doing these analytical processes in setting forth what the risk matrix is.
Thinking back to grad school stats classes, I have to ask: is this a legitimate argument? Do more Excel cells equal a better result? Not necessarily. You can create the Mother Of All Spreadsheets (the “MOAS”) as DHS has done, and model every variable imaginable; but that model is only as good as the variables you choose and the data you feed into it. Shouldn’t someone have done an intuitive gut check with the results, and asked “why is Las Vegas on our list of cities to stop funding? That makes no sense.”
Generally I believe that this type of analysis is an important and necessary part of risk assessment. But homeland security risk assessment isn’t hurricane forecasting. Ideally, it should be as much an art as a science. We’re fighting against crafty, evil bastards who can adjust their plans and tactics in response to what we do, not against actuarially predictable natural forces. For that reason, it doesn’t make sense to be bound entirely by the analytical rigor of spreadsheet modeling in developing forward-looking risk assessment and resource prioritization.
Finally, I’ve seen a few comments like this one:
It is astonishing Homeland Security officials took so long to move away from the ineffective grant-sharing formulas and congressional politics that have distorted the distribution of homeland security funds since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Wrong. Don’t point your fingers at DHS on this argument – point them at Congress. They’re the ones who wrote the SHSGP grant formulas into law, and have only recently begun to give DHS more discretion on allocations with the UASI grants.
Update (1/6): One final note. My award for the least selfish commentary on the UASI grants goes to the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, which headlines their story:
Terror safety grants ought to be based on risk
Mainers should accept that other parts of the country face greater threats.
And the award for the most selfish commentary on the UASI grants goes to some of the people from Rockland, NY who are quoted in this story.