Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 23, 2011

Rational analyses, complicated relationships, and risk management

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on September 23, 2011

On September 8 the Government Accountability Office released a comprehensive analysis entitled: Progress Made and Work Remaining in Implementing Homeland Security Missions 10 Years after 9/11.

As is almost always the case, the GAO has been diligent and deliberate.  Below I have excerpted three high-level conclusions. If you are involved in any aspect of homeland security it is worth your time to read the full thirty-one page document.

There is nothing in the GAO report with which I radically disagree.  But after my first skim I sighed and put it aside.  After my first quick read, I needed a nap.  When I finally gave the report the careful read it deserves, I finished with the sense of dark cloud descending about me.

The very rationality of GAO’s analysis left me dissatisfied and, in a low-grade sort of way, even frustrated.  This is not to suggest GAO should adjust their approach.  But the GAO analysis, any analysis — any breaking apart — is just one step in solving a problem.

David Brooks, the New York Times Op-Ed writer, commentator, etc. recently wrote a book called The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.  Thomas Nagel gave it a rather mediocre review, but also did a fair job summarizing Brooks’ thesis:

We may think that what we believe and do is largely under our conscious control, and we may believe that we should try to increase this control by the conscious exercise of reasoning and will power, but Brooks says that this is all wrong. Nondeliberate emotion, perception and intuition are much more important in shaping our lives than reason and will. Knowledge of what makes us tick, Brooks argues, does not come primarily from introspection but must rely on systematic external observation, experiment and statistics. What is more, the Platonic ideal of putting the passions under the control of reason leads to policy mistakes, because rational incentives and arguments cannot change the most deep-seated sources of failure; only pervasive social influences that affect the unconscious operation of the mind can do that.

I am sure this is true.

This truth does not obviate the truth of what GAO found at DHS.  But to make real progress regarding real risks both rational and intuitive truths must be given their due.

Years ago Tom Foley, the former Speaker of the House, warned me that Washington is over-populated with medieval nominalists.  He went on to explain, “If they can only find the right combination of words for a speech, for legislation, for a regulation they are sure the world can be put right.”

Much more than words, it is our relationships that make reality. No magic incantation — no matter how wise, empirical, and proven — will achieve nearly as much as men and women thinking together, working together, and taking decisions together.


Excerpted from the GAO Executive Summary:

GAO’s work identified three themes at the foundation of DHS’s challenges.

Leading and coordinating the homeland security enterprise. DHS has made important strides in providing leadership and coordinating efforts among its stakeholders. However, DHS needs to take additional action to forge effective partnerships and strengthen the sharing and utilization of information, which has affected its ability to effectively satisfy its missions. For example, the expectations of private sector stakeholders have not been met by DHS and its federal partners in areas related to sharing information about cyber-based threats to critical infrastructure. In 2005, GAO designated information sharing for homeland security as high risk because the federal government faced challenges in analyzing and sharing information in a timely, accurate, and useful way.

Implementing and integrating management functions for results. DHS has enhanced its management functions, and has plans in place to further strengthen the management of the department for results. However, DHS has not always effectively executed or integrated these functions. In 2003, GAO designated the transformation of DHS as high risk because DHS had to transform 22 agencies into one department. DHS has demonstrated strong leadership commitment and begun to implement a strategy to address its management challenges. However, these challenges have contributed to schedule delays, cost increases, and performance problems in a number of programs aimed at delivering important mission capabilities, such as container security technologies. DHS also faced difficulties in deploying some technologies that meet defined requirements. Further, DHS does not yet have enough skilled personnel to carry out activities in various areas, such as acquisition management; and has not yet developed an integrated financial management system, impacting its ability to have ready access to reliable information for informed decision making.

Strategically managing risks and assessing homeland security efforts. Forming a new department while working to implement statutorily mandated and department-initiated programs and responding to evolving threats, was, and is, a significant challenge facing DHS. Key threats have impacted DHS’s approaches and investments. It is understandable that these threats had to be addressed immediately as they arose. However, limited strategic and program planning by DHS and limited assessment to inform approaches and investment decisions have contributed to programs not meeting strategic needs in an efficient manner.   Given DHS’s leadership responsibilities in homeland security, it is critical that its programs are operating as efficiently and effectively as possible, are sustainable, and continue to mature to address pressing security needs. Eight years after its creation and 10 years after September 11, 2001, DHS has indeed made significant strides in protecting the nation, but has yet to reach its full potential.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

September 23, 2011 @ 5:45 am

I believe a longer version [226 pp] also exists. But more crucially how is DHS going to utilize these findings. Little evidence of DHS being a learning organization as the Public Administration types advocate. Much less an HRO in any of its components except perhaps Secret Service and Coast Guard.

FEMA did get out a final version of the National Recovery Strategy several years late. See Recovery Diva Blog!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 23, 2011 @ 6:05 am

Bill, Indeed the longer report exists — and it was the source of my deep dark cloud — but I would not recommend it for general reading. In any case, the longer report is available at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-881

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 23, 2011 @ 7:32 am

I am not sure if the National Recovery Framework is in fact the statutorily mandated National Recovery Strategy. Time will tell!

Comment by John Comiskey

September 24, 2011 @ 5:41 am


Two brief comments as I am in the real-world and soon to be driving my daughter to a very risky soccer game.

1. HLS is all about relationships of near every kind.
2. Much of those relationships are predicated on a tacit intuitive sense of how things of most kinds actually do get done.
3. The GAO report does accurately depict a monolithic mega-organization operating in a real political milieu replete with competing priorities and real-time crisis.

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