I returned recently from almost two months of seminars and conferences about homeland security. During that time I spoke with close to 150 people, all of whom have some involvement with the homeland security enterprise. Here are some random, unscientific observations I took away from those conversations. They all lead me to the conclusion that homeland security could use some new DNA.
1. Homeland security does not have a center of gravity. I think it once did, back in the day when the prime directive was prevent another terrorist attack.
On the other hand, I did find one person who could cite — almost verbatim — the 32 words in the new national preparedness goal. That should count for something.
2. The parts of the homeland security enterprise focus on too many different and important things. Can whole of community move beyond FEMA’s nouvelle idée? How great would that be,TSA, CPB, ICE, USSS, S&T, DNO, I&A, USCIS, USCG, states, territories, and tribes?
What would it even look like?
3. The overall feeling about homeland security I came away with reminds me of the first part of a Yeats poem:Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
But that was just a feeling.
4. The money’s just about gone. And what’s left is going to get smaller. This may have been the primary theme over the past 2 months.
There were two general reactions to that reality: “What a waste” and “Deal with it.”
The what a waste voices complained about the inevitable deterioration of the capabilities that have been built over the past decade. The deal with it voices said we’re going to have to suck it up and find new ways of working — like regionalization and sharing things — so the capabilities do not deteriorate.
The deal with it sounds gave me confidence that grownups continue to hold homeland security together.
5. Doing less with less. Government should be run more like a business, people often say. Excluding, of course, those who say government is run by business.
Let’s try running homeland security — across the country — like Jack Welch used to run GE. Put programs in three categories: good (20%), average (70%), and poor (10%) performers. Each year, terminate the poor performing programs.
How to measure performance? Let the programs decide, in public.
No, it’s not perfect, and the 20/70/10 approach has significant disadvantages. But combine that with the process Tim Harford describes in his book “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure” — try new things; know some will fail; make failure survivable; make sure you know when you’ve failed — and see what happens.
6. The threat is (still) overblown, I heard a few speakers suggest. Maybe a few years ago the threat was significant — let’s just say it was. Now, not so much. Two out of our three wars are sort of over. (Even that sentence canot be expressed directly.) Al Qaeda is as gasping as Gaddafi’s final “Do you know right from wrong?” question.
There will always be natural disasters. Not much prevention there. What about “mitigation?” the emergency managers in the groups always brought up. Don’t forget pandemics, whispered the unceasingly quiet public health voice.
There is a non-zero probability of a biological attack, a dirty bomb, a domestic nuclear detonation, a chemical attack — you know the list. But the probability/possibility/plausibility of one of those events is too small to justify spending much money building prevention or response programs. The money could be better used elsewhere.
That message was never well received. Much of the time the listeners attacked the claim before allowing the speaker to finish constructing the argument. It was almost as if there were an incentive in the homeland security enterprise to amplify the threat.
There was one threat no one — speaker or listener — argued against: IEDs and small arms tactics.
7. In spite of the almost knee jerk defense of remaining alert to the conventional unconventional threats, there was a sense among the people I spoke with and listened to that these traditional threats are moving into the “Tired” category.
Several groups said focusing on Islam, al Qaeda, and typical terrorism was getting dull. Not because the issues were unimportant or uninteresting — “eternal vigiliance” and all that. But because the topics focus too much on the past. They wanted homeland security to pay more attention to the future: cyber, synthetic biology, and slow moving threats like climate change and planetary resource depletion. Even Occupy Whatever came up as something worthy of homeland security concern — not the people bringing the message, but the message they bring.
8. There is a well known paper in the public safety community by Dave Grossman called “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs.” Sheep (most Americans) live in denial that evil exists in the world; “that is what makes them sheep.” But there are wolves (the evil guys) who “feed on the sheep without mercy.” Then there are sheepdogs (the good guys) who “live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.”
Where, asked a friend who works in the Enterprise and who spends a lot of time thinking about doing the right thing, are the shepherds in this tactical metaphor?
9. There were numerous discussions about rights and duties, and about the need for some serious civic lessons throughout the country.
Occupy Wall Street — is that an example of people meeting their civic responsibility to remedy ineffective national governance and cororate greed? Are privacy objections to the new TSA “chat up” procedures — and there are objectors in the first responder community — examples of neglecting one’s civic duty to support legitimate authority?
The Constitution mentions rights over a dozen times. Duty shows up thrice, and in each case it refers to a financial charge not a responsibility.
What duties do Americans have in the homeland security enterprise? The QHSR says people have the responsibility to
“take the basic steps to prepare themselves for emergencies … reducing hazards in and around their homes… monitoring emergency communications carefully, volunteering with established organizations, mobilizing or helping to ensure community preparedness, enrolling in training courses, and practicing what to do in an emergency…. In addition, individual vigilance and awareness can help communities remain safer and bolster prevention efforts.”
These duties will not stir Tea Party or Occupy Party convictions.
10. To mashup Anne-Marie Slaughter’s introduction to the “National Strategic Narrative,”
The United States needs a homeland security narrative. We have a national security strategy [and a National Preparedness Goal],… but those are documents written by specialists for specialists. They do not answer a fundamental question that more and more Americans [should be] asking. Where is [homeland security] going? How can we get there? What are the guiding stars that will illuminate the path along the way? We need a story with a beginning, middle, and projected happy ending that will transcend our political divisions, orient us as a [people], and give us both a common direction and the confidence and commitment to get to our destination.
Yeats ends his poem with a question:The darkness drops again but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Maybe Steve Jobs spoke an answer with his final words: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”
That’s a feeling that might guide even a deaf falcon toward an evolutionary reconstruction of homeland security.