Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 28, 2010

A dialog: Diagnosing homeland security (schizophrenia, mania, histrionic personality disorder, or what?)

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on June 28, 2010

Editorial Note: Art Bottrell is an experienced emergency manager whose career has included stints with FEMA, the California Office of Emergency Services (now CalEMA),  in local government, and as a consultant.  The following dialog began on Friday, June 25 and continued over the weekend.   The dialog opens referencing Mr. Bottrell’s comment to Friday’s blog post by John Comiskey.  Art and I have never met outside the blogosphere. 

Art:

You do not comment often, but each comment has been especially sharp. Can I interest you in a public dialog for the Monday HLSwatch post?

I don’t want to pigeon-hole either of us, but I perceive you are more conservative in your epistemology than I am. If this is accurate, I envy your discipline. My less rigorous approach may be little more  than the immaturity you referenced. 

You wrote, “I’d suggest that one challenge we’ve faced in the early years of the Homeland Security era has been the tendency – especially when faced with a paucity of evidence to inform our choices – to substitute passion for understanding.” 

I perceive the homeland security “personality” has demonstrated schizophrenic tendencies, moving manically between passionate engagement and dispassionate understanding, between politics and engineering,  between intuition and science.  I am almost certainly more inclined toward passion, politics, and intuition.  How about you?

–+–

Philip:

I don’t think of myself as conservative so much as just old and perhaps a bit weary.  I think most folks who’ve worked with me would fault me for an  excess of idealism and an excessively intuitive approach.  Perhaps my most  radical belief is that one can be idealistic without being foolish, that  humanity may not be perfectible but nonetheless can improve.

Of course, I come from the pre-9/11 school of “emergency management,” which was more about hazard mitigation and consequence management than  about attempts at prevention.  That’s one dimension of the schizophrenia you mention.  I feel an inherent tension between the goal of keeping bad things from happening and that of dealing with them when they happen anyway.  If prevention is the highest goal, planning for response or even  mitigating hazards smacks of planning for failure, which is a hard thing to ask of anyone.

 And thus “resilience” has become a bit of a code-word for a reaction against the perceived Fortress America mentality of “first generation”  Homeland Security.  (Just because I agree with it doesn’t mean I can’t  acknowledge the political overtones.)

Another fault-line may lie revealed in the use of the term “homeland,” singular.  Inevitably it emphasizes the national, if not federal, agenda and subordinates local, community-based or international activities.  One practical result has been the growing adoption at the state and local level of the federal practice of heavy reliance on contractors and the deprecation of career civil service.  Which, again, aligns with a particular political perspective.

As for swings between rationality and rhetoric, my personal experience has been that “waiving the bloody shirt” is very often an indication that the underlying rationale is weak.  Thus the more passionate the language, the more skeptical I become.  Good policy, in my opinion, comes when reason and passion align.

–+–

Art:

I understand the old and weary. Each day I understand more and more.  I may be immature, but I cannot blame it on lack of years. 

You point to a cognitive dissonance between prevention and mitigation/response.  Is this because failure is not an option?  I’ve always found that an odd claim.  My farmer/merchant forebears lived in a  world where failure was regularly experienced, always an option, and nothing to be embarrassed about; unless you compounded failure by not  learning from it. In your experience, where does failure fit in the  culture of homeland security?

About that “bloody shirt,” can you give examples?  One man’s bloody shirt, might be another’s muddy shirt.  Because I am interested in the mix of emotion and reason (perhaps a bit different than rationality and  rhetoric?), I would like to better understand your faults lines.

Thanks.

–+–

Philip -

As you point out, the dissonance isn’t just cognitive.  Saying “failure is not an option” is implicitly to claim that all things are within our power, which is obviously untrue.  (Shades of Lee Clarke again!)  What that fine-sounding phrase really means is that failure is not acceptable to the  speaker.  So its weight depends entirely on the listeners’ respect for (or fear of) the speaker.  Imagine a small child demanding the parents produce a baby sister on such terms!  It’s funny because child and parents alike so obviously lacks enforcement power. Thus in saying “failure is not an option”
the speaker makes a not-very-subtle claim of authority over the audience.

But even if the speaker is entirely selfless and just caught up in the spirit of the moment, the pridefulness of the language should be enough to sound warning bells.  Although not an especially religious man, I was raised
in a Christian tradition that held Pride to be a sin…and a dangerous one.  Proverbs 16:18 says “Pride goes before destruction, and an haughty spirit  before a fall.”  The ancient Greeks called it hubris.  I’m not sure exactly
at what point pride started to be treated as inherently virtuous.  Anyway,  when we start talking like we’re all-powerful, I get uneasy.

Pre-9/11 there was a great deal of dialog between FEMA and the various law enforcement agencies over exactly where to draw the line between “incident management” and “consequence management” in various terrorist scenarios.  While there were issues at the edge, there was general agreement that the two activities were distinct and distinguishable.  With the formation of DHS  that question of jurisdiction became a question of priorities.  This was, I  think, the essence of the “FEMA in or out?” debate…could a single  organization really balance prevention and response, enforcement and  empowerment?  The administrative issue is settled, at least for now, but  that didn’t make the underlying tension go away, especially at budget time.  Which in DC is pretty much all the time.

Professional airline pilots practice a discipline called Cockpit Resource  Management (or more recently, Crew Resource Management.)  One of the core concepts of CRM is “managing the error flow.”  The idea is that there are always problems and mistakes, so a key to survival is to identify and deal  with them before they concentrate and compound into a disaster.  The  essential first step is to admit that bad stuff will happen despite our best  intentions and most fervent wishes.

As to soiled outerwear: To quote Wikipedia, ‘In the history of the United  States, “waving the bloody shirt” refers to the demagogic practice of politicians referencing the blood of martyrs or heroes to inspire support or avoid criticism.’  Far be it from me to point a finger, but I think anyone can find examples, at the local, national and international levels, in almost any day’s newspaper.  (Hint: Look for occurrences of the word “victim.”) 

I appreciate the humor of your image of “waiving the muddy shirt” but, since the point is to elicit an emotional response, generally  speaking I wouldn’t expect mud to work nearly so well.  Except possibly with  the person responsible for doing the laundry.

Again, I have nothing against passion per-se.  But a lot of folks we look  back on as misguided or even evil were indisputably passionate.  Passion doesn’t guarantee wisdom, much less goodness, and it’s no defense against a
hurricane.  It’s precisely because passion can so easily lead humans astray  that we want to keep it yoked to reason.

–+–

Art:

So… what I hear you saying is: homeland security — and specifically the Department of Homeland Security — has been given an assignment that is innately complex and, as such, the various aspects of the assignment are persistently in tension.

This tension is reflected in political, financial, operational and other forms of friction.  Such friction is typical of human organizations.  But depending on the situation, the friction itself can become threatening.

If an exogenous event — natural, accidental, or intentional — happens to  provide flammable material, the internal friction can ignite an inferno that might otherwise have been avoided ( e.g. last week a friend was describing a
conflict that arose between the PFO and FCO staffs early in the Katrina response).

The fiction of being all-powerful amplifies this friction, like an accelerant  tossed on flame.  Weirdly this fiction — the desire (even vague possibility) to be all-powerful — is often advocated as a method for reducing the friction.  Just give someone — or some office — more power and they will deconflict the tensions.  Create another Czar. At best the fictive accelerant temporarily obscures the flame (as with autumn leaves).  But actually the fiction is just giving the flame more fuel.

Am I hearing you, or am I just translating you into what I already believe?  I invited this dialogue because I perceived you and I held some  fundamentally different perspectives.  But — right now — I perceive we are  much closer than I expected.

–+–

Phil -

I think we’re in substantial agreement.  However, I also think it’s important to distinguish between professional (individual) concerns and organizational ones.  We may or may not be able to do anything about the goodness-of-fit of organizational structure to social and political problems.  But within whatever structure we find ourselves, each of us faces choices about how we play our role.

That’s the level at which I worry about a tendency toward romanticism, especially among practitioners who’ve come to the field recently.  It’s easy and sometimes expedient to wrap oneself in the flag of an ideal such as “stakeholder involvement” or “interoperability” or “never again,” especially when one doesn’t have any other basis for making decisions.  But the clarity of reductionism always comes at a price.  Like the economic externalities of environmental pollution, the messy details we dismiss in the process of sloganeering don’t go away, they just accumulate.

A colleague in FEMA Public Affairs once shared with me the best job description I ever heard: “A TV producer,” he said, “has a keen sense of the inevitability of detail.”  The producer, he explained, is the one person on the set who can’t wave away any consideration, no matter how inconvenient or seemingly imponderable; the producer is ultimately responsible for the outcome, not just the process.

It’s true that large organizations tend not to reward that sort of personal responsibility.  While small organizations are held accountable for their results by their stakeholders/customers, as they grow they quickly become “too big to fail.”  At that point the preservation of the institution starts to take precedence over the achievement of its goals.  Indeed, at a certain point organizations acquires the power to redefine their goals to fit their capabilities.  And such redefinitions often are justified in glittering generalities like “security,” “stability” or even (alas!) “resilience.”

Which is why I think it’s crucial that professionals in big organizations strive to maintain a balance between sentiment and rationality.  Too little passion can beget sloth, but too much can take us off the cliff of extremism.

- Art

–+–

I give significant priority to the value of “attention” and “strategic focus”, but whether Art and I disagree on this will have to wait for another day.  In regard to Art’s final sentence (immediately above), I have also seen passion push the best intentions over a cliff.  But my experience suggests enthusiastic and collaborative creativity is often more productive than the most rigorous analysis.  The two observations are not, it seems to me, contradictory.  But they are in tension.  Can they become complementary?  Would this contribute to the balance of which Art writes? 

I hope you will join the discussion by posting a comment or question.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 28, 2010 @ 1:24 am

Well and excellent exchange. Underneath of course is the reflection of the fact that new policies and new issues bring forth new dialectic and new organizations. Since Washington is always filled with “youngsters” on the make they can often benefit from changes that may disrupt the status quo.

The real problem to me is that the “bloody shirt” of 9/11/01 (admittedly a large scale event in the number of human losses and direct and indirect costs) was not the opening round on terrorism. It in fact just brought to the head of the line a problem that the Law Enforcement, EM,DOD and HD/HS community had addressed or tried to address earlier. It did in some cases have different labels and organizations. The problem now as I see it is that the bureacracies at federal, state, and local level are faced with the prospects of dividing a constantly diminishing pie so that I expect the bureaucratic rivalries and dialectic to be even more confrontational. What does seem often lost is the quiet, skilled, competent leadership and thinking that will get US through this next period of time. Definitely complexity and even chaos may push other items onto the agenda or rearrange the agenda. Thanks Phil and Art for the dialogue.

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