Following up from my earlier number-crunching posts, I’ve now reflected a bit more on the allocations, and read the transcript from the press conference and the official DHS information bulletin on the grant decisions.
Overall, I think the Department did a solid job in making these decisions, and I take them at their word when they say that this process was free from political influence. Some states and cities did receive significant cuts to their funding, but that could turn out to be a good thing in some cases, forcing cities and states to be more strategic and better prepared for this grant process, rather than simply expecting a handout each year. But I do have a few concerns about the way that the process was being managed this year:
1. The risk of a free-rider problem. 60 Minutes reported a couple of months ago that New York City has spent close to $1 billion of its own (non-federal) money on homeland security since 9/11. As a result, it is probably the most well-protected large city in the world today, and accordingly falls lower on the scale of “need” than many other U.S. cities. Thus, perhaps, the 40% cut to its UASI funding today. Meanwhile, many cities and states that have spent very little of their own money – and therefore have a high “need” factor – are receiving increases in funding.
Is that fair? And doesn’t it create a risk of a kind of homeland security welfare dependency, and weaken the incentives for cities and states to put up their own money for homeland security activities?
One solution to this problem would be to shift at least a portion of these grants to “matching funds,” which would require cities and/or states to put up their own funds on a 1:1 basis as a way to signal whether they take the threat of terrorism seriously.
2. Data quality. At today’s press conference, Under Secretary Foresman said the following:
Letâ€™s make sure that the data sets that inform our decision processes â€” whether itâ€™s data sets that come from state and local government, that come from the FBI, DHS, the intelligence community â€” letâ€™s make sure weâ€™ve got the right accurate data sets because you all have heard discussions about local communities that have said, well, gosh, you didnâ€™t give me credit for this, or you counted this and thatâ€™s not the case any more. So we really want to focus on data quality.
That sounds good in theory…but as I’ve said before, with this kind of analysis, it’s easy to become bedazzled by the data and pay insufficient attention to the subjective, gut-level reality about threats. And it’s difficult to model the symbolic hold that New York City and Washington, DC have on terrorist groups, which is why, contrary to Gertrude Stein, a skyscraper isn’t a skyscraper isn’t a skyscraper.
3. The information-sharing cudgel. The most interesting statement from the press conference today is this one by Under Secretary Foresman:
There have been states in metropolitan areas that didnâ€™t have full visibility on the number of â€œterrorism-related investigationsâ€ that were precipitated by anything from tangible information to someone simply videotaping a building, and it gets labeled as that. And I guess, what Iâ€™m offering to you is, weâ€™re getting better visibility on data of that category. And if a local police department two years ago got a report of a suspicious person videotaping a nuclear power plant, that is important information that we need at the federal level because it might be part of a larger pattern. But two years ago, they may not have passed it up the chain. Whatâ€™s better today is weâ€™ve got better information sharing, and when you get better information sharing, you get better risk analysis.
And in many ways, this incentivizes the fact that state and local governments need to be collaborating with their federal partners on whatâ€™s going on in their community. And we need to be collaborating with them on whatâ€™s going on so that weâ€™re creating that full picture. And, frankly, the full picture has not been there in the past. I guess, in many ways thereâ€™s an incentive for better information sharing in grant dollars.
Foresman is essentially saying that the quality and quantity of threat reporting up the chain played a role in these grant decisions, and is telling cities and states that they need to play in the sandbox on info-sharing if they want homeland security funding. This is not a bad strategy in theory, but it should be applied cautiously for now, given that DHS still faces challenges in sharing information with them.
This could perhaps be a key reason why NYC saw its funding cut so drastically: it has freely admitted that it doesn’t have the luxury of time to become overly dependent on DHS and the FBI for its threat investigation and analysis. Perhaps a lower level of threat reporting by the NYPD to the federal government led to a perception that the threat had diminished in NYC.
The main risk that I see with pursuing this kind of approach derives from the subjectivity of people’s perception of the terrorist threat. Something that would be commonplace in a large U.S. city – a foreign-looking guy loitering near a major building – could conceivably trigger a call to the local FBI office in a small town somewhere. If DHS is relying on the number of threat reports as a metric for grant determinations, then that’s likely to be an imprecise choice.
Overall, I think the Department of Homeland Security did a solid job with the grant allocation process this year, but it still has some explaining to do about a few of its decisions, in particular, (a) why all cities in Florida received plus-ups and (b) why low-threat states like Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Missouri received relatively large allocations this year.