I’ve taken a closer look at the White House’s report on Katrina, released earlier today, focusing on one of the core sections of the report – Chapter Six, entitled “Transforming National Preparedness.” The chapter looks at the core, systemic lessons of the response to Katrina, noting that the reliance on “pull-model” for disaster response where states and cities request federal assistance is now inoperative in cases of large-scale, catastrophic disaster. The report then suggests that a model of national security is perhaps more appropriate in such catastrophic incidents today:
While this [pull] approach has worked well in the majority of disasters and emergencies, catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina are a different matter. The current homeland security environmentâ€”with the continuing threat of mass casualty terrorism and the constant risk of natural disastersâ€”now demands that the Federal government actively prepare and encourage the Nation as a whole to plan, equip, train, and cooperate for all types of future emergencies, including the most catastrophic.
A useful model for our approach to homeland security is the Nationâ€™s approach to national security. Over the past six decades, we have created a highly successful national security system. This system is built on deliberate planning that assesses threats and risks, develops policies and strategies to manage them, identifies specific missions and supporting tasks, and matches the forces or capabilities to execute them. Operationally organized, it stresses the importance of unity of command from the President down to the commander in the field.
Perhaps most important, the national security system emphasizes feedback and periodic reassessment. Programs and forces are assessed for readiness and the degree to which they support their assigned missions and strategies on a continuing basis. Top level decision-makers periodically revisit their assessments of threats and risks, review their strategies and guidance, and revise their missions, plans, and budgets accordingly.
This is a very important passage in this report, and deserves some careful scrutiny.
At a general level, the idea of a “national security approach” makes intuitive sense to me. Reactive strategies for catastrophic response are definitely insufficient, and new, more forward-leaning strategies are required given the increasing likelihood of response situations where state and local responders will be overwhelmed.
But what exact “national security” model are we talking about here? Are we talking about traditional military models – the command-and-control principles that have governed military strategies from the Gallic Wars to the Cold War defense of the Fulda Gap? Or are we talking about leading-edge, technology-enabled models such as net-centric warfare or fourth generation warfare (4GW) that empower decentralized unit-level decision-making and initiative?
Given the language in the second paragraph of the excerpt above, I’m afraid it’s the former, when what we really need is the latter. The paragraph seems to envision planning for every conceivable contingency to a very detailed level, and assigning specific responsibilities in advance. Is that what we really need? I don’t think so. Instead, I think we need a flexible, capabilities-based planning system that focuses on developing the broad set of capabilities that we need – trained people, equipment, systems, etc. – and prepares people by robustly testing these capabilities against a broad set of scenarios in a way that encourages creativity, adaptability and cross-organizational teamwork.
The paragraph also speaks of a hierarchical “unity of command” in this model. But that’s an outdated model in a networked world. Even with robust system awareness, I’d contend that in any large-scale catastrophic response situation, the “effectiveness benefits” due to rapid on-the-ground decision-making will outweigh the “efficiency benefits” of centralized control.
As I mentioned earlier today, I think there are some important and positive lessons in this report. But any shift to greater centralization of the emergency management process has serious risks, and could ultimately weaken the system rather than strengthen it. Instead of trying to over-plan and assert greater control over the national preparedness effort, the federal government should focusing on empowering and enabling the millions of direct participants in the national response system around the country. That’s the ‘national security approach’ that we should take.