Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 28, 2011

Homeland security: Anticipating risk is key to the business plan

Filed under: Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on January 28, 2011

Twenty-five years ago today the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

Last year there were no airline fatalities in the United States.

The financial crisis was avoidable, according to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

On Wednesday and Thursday the Dow Jones Industrials briefly reclaimed 12,000 for the first time since June 2008.

In the aftermath of the street revolution in Tunisia, this morning the streets of Cairo, Sanaa, Tripoli and elsewhere were full of the angry (and hopeful).

Are these headlines in any (reasonable) way related and meaningful to homeland security?

In her USA Today special on the Challenger explosion, Traci Watson offers some intriguing lessons learned.  The lessons suggest how an ambitious and potentially meaningful program came to a close.  The final space shuttle flight is tentatively scheduled for June with no substantial successor program identified.

To better suggest possible relevance with homeland security I will — slightly — amend headliness for two of the  four lessons learned:

  1. The mission takes big bucks… so it requires a big justification.
  2. The strategy and vehicle selected couldn’t sustain its business plan.
  3. Complacency is hard to avoid. (verbatim)
  4. There will be accidents (verbatim)

Ergo, if the business plan cannot really justify the big bucks then when a bit of human complacency results in a dramatic failure (or two), the entire enterprise — no matter its nobility or potentiality — will tend to implode.  If you are not familiar with “business plan” consider raison d’etre, practical purpose, or return-on-investment.

Please read Ms. Watson’s original for details related to the Challenger, but it does not take much imagination to apply the word-problem to homeland security.

In contrast to the space shuttle program, even as the number of flights and passengers have increased, the number of airline fatalities has decreased.  According to another USA Today article (can you tell I have been staying in hotels alot?):

The average number of deaths fell from about 86 a year in the 1990s to 46 a year since 2000, a 46% drop. Last year also marked the first time that there were no passenger fatalities on any airline based in developed nations, says Arnold Barnett, a professor who specializes in accident statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. “In the entire First World, fatal crashes are at the brink of extinction,” Barnett says.

Improvements in aircraft engineering, maintenance,  decision-processes, and training/education have substantially reduced the probability of fatal accidents.  The same might be said for the space shuttle as well.  The difference is almost certainly the perceived (actual?) value of the business plan.  The advantage of commercial air travel — despite everything — remains clear.  The advantage of the shuttle compared with alternatives is not nearly as distinct.  But, make no mistake, there will be airline fatalities and human complacency or intention are likely to play important roles.

Yesterday the 576 page report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was released.  They found:

The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire… The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public. Theirs was a big miss, not a stumble… The greatest tragedy would be to accept the refrain that no one could have seen this coming and thus nothing could have been done. If we accept this notion, it will happen again.

I am entirely prepared to accept this finding, except for the implication of the last sentence. No matter what improvements are made, it will happen again. Something like the financial crisis is inevitable. The most important precondition for mitigating the consequences is a very keen sense of impending failure.

Regarding the recent stock market rally Dan Caplinger writes, “When everyone is frightened about the stock market, opportunistic investors start looking for bargains. But right now, after a huge rally over the past four months, investors are getting cocky with their profits — and contrarian investors should be looking for ways to protect themselves.”  What goes up will come down.

Yesterday in Davos, French President Nicholas Sarkozy warned that monetary imbalances “have risen five-fold in recent years … and could bring down the whole house of cards.”

On January 13 speaking at the Doha Forum for the Future of the Middle East, Secretary Clinton said:

We all know this region faces serious challenges, even beyond the conflicts that dominate the headlines of the day. And we have a lot of work to do. This forum was designed to be not just an annual meeting where we talk with and at each other, but a launching pad for some of the institutional changes that will deal with the challenges that we all know are present.

For example, a growing majority of this region is under the age of 30. In fact, it is predicted that in just one country, Yemen, the population will double in 30 years. These young people have a hard time finding work. In many places, there are simply not enough jobs. Across the region, one in five young people is unemployed. And in some places, the percentage is far more. While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reform to make their governments more effective, more responsive, and more open. And all this is taking place against a backdrop of depleting resources: water tables are dropping, oil reserves are running out, and too few countries have adopted long-term plans for addressing these problems.

Each country, of course, has its own distinct challenges, and each its own achievements. But in too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand. The new and dynamic Middle East that I have seen needs firmer ground if it is to take root and grow everywhere.

The next day the long-time Tunisian strongman, Ben Ali, fled to exile in Saudi Arabia.  That pebble in the pond continues to ripple.

Airline travel is a highly engineered complex human-machine interface operating within sometimes extreme, but generally predictable conditions. There is constant risk.  A large population has, for now, decided the benefit justifies the risk and cost.

The space shuttle is a highly engineered complex human-machine interface operating at the edge of our experience and knowledge. There is constant risk.  It has been decided the benefit no longer justifies the risk and cost.

The stock market is a complex human system facilitated and amplified by highly engineered machine processes.  There is constant risk. A large population has, for now, decided the benefit justifies the risk and cost.

In the Middle East we are on the sharp edge of a profound demographic and social shift.  A large population has decided the current approach to social engineering is no longer worth the costs. Risk is spiking.  Whether very soon or a bit later, the current arrangements will be superseded.  By what is not nearly as clear.

Whatever else, the homeland security business plan involves risk anticipation.  Do you see what I see?

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 28, 2011 @ 4:59 am

Well PHIL probably don’t see what you see but “Are these headlines in any (reasonable) way related and meaningful to homeland security?” Anwser to that is YES!
WHY? Academics have come up with the concept of the HIGH RELIABLE ORGANIZATION and suggest its application to much of your post and question whether any part or all of DHS should be analyzed from that standpoint? The Armed Forces of the US pride themselves on being HRO’s whether that is deserving or not that is a standard they (the ARMED FORCES) have chosen. I won’t go to the question of whether DOD contractor’s (builder of the space shuttle for NASA) are HRO’s.

And of course a generation of school children were mandated to watch the CHALLENGER take off and then of course impacted by its destruction. Interesting the CHINESE space effort not displaying the triumphalism of the US space program but deciding instead on a low key but highly professional public face recognizing the dangers of space. Baby its cold outside!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 28, 2011 @ 6:32 am

Well… the High Reliability Organization was not in my visual foreground. But it is a great aspect to bring forward. Readers can find much more on the HRO concept at http://high-reliability.org/

A couple of copy-and-paste “comments” (Stolen from Wikipedia) and one personal caution:

A High Reliability Organization (HRO) is an organization that has succeeded in avoiding catastrophes in an environment where normal accidents can be expected due to risk factors and complexity.

There are 5 characteristics of High Reliability Organizations that have been identified as responsible for the “mindfulness” that keeps them working well when facing unexpected situations.

Preoccupation with failure
Reluctance to simplify interpretations
Sensitivity to operations
Commitment to resilience
Deference to expertise

HRO is a great community, a great body of work, and like all heroes is inclined to its own particular hubris. In my judgment this hero’s particular vulnerability arises from “deference to expertise.” This can quickly and easily be taken too far and exclude precisely the community involvement that is also required.

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 28, 2011 @ 7:23 am

See my post at:

“NO SHORT CUT TO EXPERTISE” | vacationlanegrp- Another Cumming blog

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 28, 2011 @ 7:24 am


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