Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 6, 2006

Final thoughts for the week on the UASI grants

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 6, 2006

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.

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9 Comments »

63

Comment by Tim Daniel

January 9, 2006 @ 11:32 am

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.

For a good analysis please read the executive summary at: http://www.dhs.gov/interweb/assetlibrary/HSAC-FundingTaskForceRpt0604-FINAL.pdf

As the former director of homeland security for the State of Missouri my opinion is the task force got it right. Correcting the problem requires leadership and cooperation between Congress and the Administration. I’ve been around this long enough to know not to hold my breath.

65

Comment by Christian Beckner

January 9, 2006 @ 1:26 pm

Thanks for the link. I’ve glanced through that report before, but I’ll take a closer look again.

162

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Risk methodology overview and FAQ for UASI grants

January 30, 2006 @ 12:59 am

[...] The ODP website now contains two documents that are very helpful in trying to understand the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant process: a “Discussion of the FY 2006 Risk Methodology” and a “Frequently Asked Questions” document. These two documents answer some of my questions about what went into the process to determine grant eligibility, a topic that I wrote about extensively at the beginning of January. [...]

236

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Las Vegas UASI funding cut assessed

February 13, 2006 @ 12:54 am

[...] Whatever it is, there clearly is something wrong with the model in this case, as I’ve stated previously. Given the fact that every terror expert quoted in the story found this to be an obviously wrong decision, perhaps there needs to be an increased role for expert ratings in the UASI risk assessment process. [...]

754

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Las Vegas UASI decision: garbage in, garbage out

April 25, 2006 @ 10:29 am

[...] During the first week in January when the UASI grants were announced, I expressed puzzlement over the decision to drop Las Vegas from the list of high-threat cities, writing on January 6th: 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.” [...]

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » UASI grant decisions: garbage in, garbage out?

June 2, 2006 @ 12:30 am

[...] But I also think that DHS’s processes and methodologies for assessing risk are still immature, and they have become over-fixated on data (cf. Sec. Chertoff’s Mother of All Spreadsheets) of questionable value, and insufficiently focused on the holistic, qualitative elements of threat assessment. You can run the numbers in any which way, but that shouldn’t change the fact that NYC and DC are the top two terrorist targets in the United States – by far – and deserve to be treated as exceptional cases when these funding decisions are made. [...]

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Homeland security grants: more GIGO

June 5, 2006 @ 2:11 pm

[...] These anecdotes add to the impression that there are serious flaws in the analytical process for homeland security grants – which creates a need for both better data and greater subjectivity (although not politically-influenced subjectivity – which is admittedly difficult) in the decision-making process. [...]

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