Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 11, 2009

Clocks, clouds and homeland security

Filed under: State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Christopher Bellavita on March 11, 2009

“If done well, new policies will guide Homeland Security through its growing years and shape it into an effective agency,” conclude Crowley and Ross in “A Long-Term Vision For Homeland Security.” The authors believe DHS has to “think and act more strategically.”  That will require changing mindsets and risk calculations, improving long-range planning in the federal government, and engaging more broadly with non-federal stakeholders.

Crowley and Ross advise DHS to resist reacting to the latest crisis and focus more on the long term concerns that will affect the nation. They want DHS to define what it does in positive, not negative terms: “facilitating trade, travel and legal migration; building resiliency within vital global networks and systems; improving community-based preparedness and information sharing; and promoting global health.”

The authors hold high hopes for the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, due at the end of 2009. (That seems like a really long time to wait.)  They see the QHSR as an opportunity for the Obama administration to “redefine homeland security, and then identify specific missions, policies, programs, and tools necessary to succeed.” Further, they argue, the redefinition should lead to an integrated homeland security, one that may involve just about everything from global warming to sustaining certain local public safety capabilities.

The article illustrates both the clock view and the cloud view of homeland security.

A clock is a machine with a clear objective.  If the parts of the machine are arranged correctly, the clock will let you know what time it is.  According to this perspective, good strategy, deliberate planning, and integrated structures can help build an efficient and an effective homeland security machine.

The 2007 National Strategy for Homeland Security included a prototype blueprint for the kind of machine the authors seem to be calling for (available at this link, about halfway down the page).  The system includes upper level guidance, midlevel planning, street level execution, and lessons learned feedback loops.  I’ve asked lots of homeland security people about this system. I only found a dozen people who know the blueprint exists.  They all work in Washington D.C.  I wonder what a better blueprint would accomplish.

There is also a cloud view of homeland security.

No strategy directs a cloud to form.  Countless water droplets float in the atmosphere, buffeted by uncontrolled temperature and pressure.  Under the right conditions they combine with nearby water molecules, dust and other atmospheric material.  Sometimes the result is a puffy white spring cliche. Other times it’s Hurricane Katrina.

The analog here is that homeland security consists of hundreds of thousands of people in states, cities, counties, tribes, territories and elsewhere.   No unitary doctrine, strategy, or plan directs them. They help secure the nation by doing what makes sense in their immediate environment.  The Department of Homeland Security and the supporting federal partners — as significant as they are — are but one element in a larger complex system that emerges from its own unpredicted and unpredictable dynamic.  DHS is not the same thing as homeland security.

Crowly and Ross want to counter the cloud aspects of homeland security. They want the White House to lead all the federal agencies involved in homeland security.  Apparently effective coordination will not happen without someone in charge.  The Congress has to streamline oversight because there are way too many committees with their fingers in homeland security business.  Federal agencies, state and local government, and the private sector have to build “stronger relationships.”  Government and the private sector need “effective and trusting relationships.”

What can be viewed through one lens as problems can also be seen as evidence that a lot of homeland security lives in the clouds.  We might wish it were otherwise.  But wishing is only one part of leadership.

Clock logic works well on tame problems.  Cloud logic helps make sense of wicked problems.  The big issues in homeland security are almost all wicked problems.  A long term vision for homeland security needs room for both clocks and clouds.

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Comment by Claire Rubin

March 11, 2009 @ 7:40 am

Hi Chris:

I liked your article — useful to have a precise definition of “wicked problems,” since we face so many of them in this business.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 11, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

WOW! So much possible energy and reform riding on the QHSR! Not likely to happen in my opinion. And where exactly does it stand bureacratically and funding wise and who is making sure it gets done and who will be helping?
Glad thoughtful people are still even paying attention to Homeland Security because clearly except for contractors hoping to make a bunch there has been a huge fall off in attention and interest in Congress, the Executive Branch (including programs, functions and activities in both DHS and non-DHS Executive Branch orgs) and STATE and LOCAL governments, NGO’s and the average Joe Citizen. Let’s call it the way it is–little in the way of effective WMD preparedness, little in the way of other than plans for large-scale catastrophic events–the 12 or 15 key scenarios are still not fleshed out through the full gamut of response and recovery–EPA cutbacks on technical response issues still occuring–as has DOE funding and staffing for many highly difficult technical response issues. Executive Branch org doing the best overall since 9/11 in my judgement is the FCC. Perhaps Juliette Kayyem can update some of the key communications deficiency finds done for Belfer Institute at Kennedy Center early spring 2002. Some of the key reports really need systematic review with report cards to find out where we are. Curiousity–how does DHS generally get technical information out and recieve it on proliferation issues? Again where is Congress? Dining out on the lobbyists I guess. Still little in the way of effective oversight and clear that GAO baseline reports are largely ignored. Too bad because doing quality work given their staff levels and funding. Remarkable really.

Comment by Adam Richardson

March 11, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

Definitely agree that DHS problems (along with most of the big problems the administration is facing these days) are wicked problems. You might be interested in some of the writing I’ve done on wicked problems — this is in a business innovation context, but many of the necessary approaches are similar I think.


Comment by William R. Cumming

March 11, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

Postscript! Great article and posting. Note that DHS Regional Office issue direct subject of Congressional mandate to come up with a fix. Neither Ridge nor Chertoff did. Guest just a wicked problem. But hey its a big country and DHS should have strong, effective, and efficient regions. Proper risk management seems to me.

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