Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 2, 2011

525,600 minutes – how do you measure, measure a year? In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee. In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.

Filed under: Legal Issues,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 2, 2011

Can homeland security be measured? Consider a couple of possibilities:

One current project is concerned with supply chain resilience.  What is a resilient supply chain?  How does it behave?  How does it deal with threats and vulnerabilities?  According to interviews with senior supply chain owners, operators, and various experts no one has visibility over any single supply chain, much less the entire Supply Chain (like God, capitalized).  A supply chain seems to work best when it is widely distributed among several sometimes-competing, sometimes-collaborating players  who may or may not share what they know.  The Supply Chain is a complex adaptive system beyond measuring or managing in anything like a traditional understanding of these terms.

A second project is concerned with deterrence.  Is deterrence a short-term or long-term outcome? How is it achieved?  It seems to be the outcome of how positive and negative sanctions are applied to a well-defined audience for a specific purpose, often at a particular time-and-place.   Is there any way to accurately predict what mix of positive-and-negative, time-and-place will be most effective?  How do you measure absence? Isn’t this what deterrence means, the absence of something unwanted?  Almost everyone agrees that deterrence is an affective outcome, it is most effective when it influences motivations and unconscious tendencies.  How do you measure progress toward such a goal?  What does success look like?

It is reasonably clear and widely accepted that supply chain resilience and deterrence are each sub-elements of homeland security. Yet I am not at all sure how any of the three,  including homeland security, are to be defined — to be made finite — and thereby measurable (as traditionally understood).

I believe homeland security (as a practice, perhaps even a weird sort of verb), if effective, produces a public good called homeland security (a noun).  How do we assess such effectiveness?

Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economics writes,

The task of measuring performance in the production of public goods will not yield to simple calculations.  Performance measurement depends instead on estimates in which indicators or proxy measure are used as estimates of performance.  By utilizing multiple indicators, weak measures of performance can be developed even though direct measures of output are not feasible. Private goods are easier to measure, account for, and relate to cost-accounting procedures and management controls.

Private goods are easier to measure because we can exclude potential users from consumption.  The private good of shelter is measured by, in part, the number of homeless… those excluded from shelter.  How would we exclude consumption of effective deterrence? How would we exclude free-riding on effective supply chain resilience?  How would we exclude effective homeland security? Why would we exclude?

Despite the complications, Congress wants better performance measures. GAO is a principled and persistent advocate of performance measures.   Any senior official with the temerity to quote Dr. Ostrom would, I expect, be received rather skeptically in most Hill hearing rooms. Most “masters of disaster” would, in any case, welcome meaningful measures.  So we keep looking.

Recently a senior FEMA official pointed to a possible relationship between mid-term sales-tax revenues, long-term recovery, and resilience.   This made some intuitive sense. We were encouraged.

After a disaster sales-tax revenue almost always shows an immediate spike. For example,  according to the Tuscaloosa News in the month following the April 27 tornado, local sales tax revenue of $2.5 million was about $160,000 higher than the same period in 2010 and about $300,000 more than in 2009.

What about one year or more later?  Sales tax revenue is a leading indicator, the FEMA official argued, for a whole host of other indicators: population, recovery of the retail sector, sustainable government services, overall economic activity, and more.  If following the immediate spike there is a long-term slide in sales-tax receipts this is almost always evidence of non-resilience. The reverse is also true he suggested: stable or higher sales tax revenues signals a range of resilience.

According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, “City of New Orleans sales tax collections for the first six months of 2011 are at $78.5 million — higher than any other six–month period post–Katrina, and only 2 percent lower than the same months in 2005.”  Taken alone this could seem a sign of extraordinary resilience, especially for a city with a considerably reduced population and in the midst of a deep national recession.

Other indicators are mixed:  New Orleans school enrollment is 63 percent pre-Katrina numbers and the rate of violent crime is 80 percent higher than the national average.  New Orleans has not seen the collapse in employment of other places in the nation, but the biggest employment sectors — energy, tourism, and shipping — are all in decline.

Is New Orleans struggling or strong?  Resilient or just hanging on until the next big one?

Greensburg, Kansas is widely celebrated as a premier example of resilience in its creative, courageous response to the May 2007 tornado that devastated the community.  Between 2009 and 2010 Kiowa County — Greensburg is the county seat — saw sales tax revenue grow about 3 percent.   Does this quantity fairly capture the resilience of Greensburg?

How do we measure homeland security?  As input or output, might be the next question.

There is a Hebrew word — transliterated as ‘esher — that is usually translated as happy or blessed. This is the noun form of a verb — transliterated as ‘asher — that means to advance, go straight, make progress.

Do we achieve the noun by experiencing the verb or is experiencing the noun what motivates the action?

“How blessed (‘esher) is the man who finds wisdom and the man who gains understanding. For her profit is better than the profit of silver and her gain better than fine gold. “(Proverbs 3:13-14)

Gold and silver can be precisely measured, valued, and excluded.  Wisdom is worth even more,  but resists unambiguous measurement.  I don’t think wisdom can be excluded (in the economic sense of the term), but it can certainly be elusive.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

December 2, 2011 @ 12:34 am

WOW! A brilliant post. Now if only other aspects of security could be subjected to such formidable analysis.

And of course why ask for “wisdom” only for HS?

Comment by Meyer

December 3, 2011 @ 12:23 am

A profound question you indeed do ask. What do you think of this observation by Helen Keller?

Security is mostly a superstition.
It does not exist in nature,
nor do the children of men
as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer
in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either a daring adventure,
or it is nothing.
To keep our faces toward change and
behave like free spirits
in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
— Helen Keller

Comment by Phil Palin, Brilliant Post! Bravo! Thank you.

December 3, 2011 @ 7:12 am

Phil Palin, Simply brilliant! You have so interestingly presented the thinking which if only those in decision-making and authority to change the present could …Oh, We would be so much better prepared for the inevitable as the future is so very uncertain given the folly, the self-indulgent ways of those we ave entrusted the safekeeping of our beloved Republic!


Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 3, 2011 @ 7:32 am


As was often her tendency, Helen Keller is being prophetic and careful. We focus on “daring adventure”, accepting “change” and being “free spirits.” This is where she wanted us to focus and usually where we need to re-focus our choices.

She also admits that security is mostly a superstition and men as a whole do not experience it.

More prosaically: I perceive that as individuals and nation-states we tend to over-invest in illusions of security, many of which may actually increase our danger. But security is reasonably part of our strategic calculus and in some situations will take priority.

Wisdom is often symbolized by images of symmetry, balance, and integration. I don’t think we should exclude security from efforts to be wise. But it is certainly worth recognizing the superstitious potential of security.

Comment by John Comiskey

December 3, 2011 @ 9:46 am


While I understand and mostly accept the GAO accountability requirements, I distress at the disconnect between the real-world and GAO-like know it all towers.

As a mid-level manager with both the NYPD and USCG, I struggled with this disconnect. Both the NYPD and USCG have multiple missions and much of what they do is measured. I argue that because so much of what they do is measured, the unmeasured part is all too often discounted.

I was taught in the Police Academy that cops are doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. People call the police when bad things happen and expect the police to fix the bad things or at least make them better.
Police work is mostly measured in crime statistics and NYPD was an innovator in crime measurement al la William Bratton’s COMPSTAT.

Without going into the specifics, COMPSTAT worked: crime was and continues to be measured, albeit sometimes subjectively, and has dramatically decreased since COMPSTAT’s 1993 inauguration.

NYPD is a most resilient organization. Its post-9/11 assumption of an unprecedented homeland security role might be described as meta-resilience.

Counterterrorism is mostly un-measureable. The metric is nothing: nothing happened. See HLS Watch H.Grattan:

The metric is nothing-nothing happened.
No summonses + No arrest = No data = poor performance?

I want cops to fix some bad things and mitigate other bad things. I can speak ad nauseam about some bad things that were not fixed and other bad things that were not mitigated because of GAO-like measurements.
Still, GAO’s measurement dictum has merit as does my assertion.

Are they another unresolved homeland security antinomy? Antinomy is used here to describe a “fundamental and apparently unresolvable conflict or contradiction.”

Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century argues that calcified government regulations reconciled the Nation’s need to respond to global threats with the need to preserve the constitutional habits of limited government, personal liberty, and political freedom played a crucial role in the events of September 11, 2001. Bobbitt argues that many of the US government’s institutions are antinomies designed to provide security while preserving our constitutional order and that those institutions cannot provide security against terrorism in the 21st Century. Bobbitt argues that the hitherto successful antinomies must now be modified or radically refined if the U.S. is to avoid September 11-like attacks.

IMHO, the GAO-measurement-dictum and non-measured-homeland-security-imperatives antinomy must now be modified or radically refined to effectively secure the homeland.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Nuclear Apples to Citizen Oranges?

December 6, 2011 @ 1:37 am

[…] private citizens or is it limited to government programs, critical infrastructure, and other easily quantifiable categories? Share and Enjoy: Tweet This Post Permalink | | Comment on this Post […]

Comment by Arnold Bogis

December 6, 2011 @ 1:56 am


I do not wish to be seen as raining on the NYPD parade, but I would appreciate a bit more of your thoughtful analysis on why you consider the NYPD post-9/11 to be so resilient.

In my mind, they assumed influence because of the natural human tendency to want to prevent bad things from happening as opposed to responding to bad things that already occurred.

But no matter their great achievements since that day, I’m not clear on how they could today prevent another 9/11-type attack. It was planned and put into operation outside of their jurisdiction. While they have expanded their reach and have been the model of imbedding officers in disparate locations for learning and early warning, at the end of the day they still can’t stop what happened on 9/11 from happening again.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

December 6, 2011 @ 2:00 am


What are you trying to measure? Is it reasonable?

Can national security be measured? I would argue that it cannot. Once a strategy, no matter how vague, is adopted the doctrine, tactics, equipment, etc. can all be worked out. Whether all analysts agree on the decisions made is another matter, however, to my knowledge there is exists no quantifiable method for measuring “national security” as an overarching category.

Why your search for a similar measuring cup for homeland security?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 6, 2011 @ 4:58 am

Arnold: Yes, precisely… or perhaps not precisely, but still yes. It can be helpful to consider ways to measure, assess, evaluate, what we do. The more precise the measure — if still meaningful — the better. But there are meanings beyond precise measure. To focus only on what can be precisely measured is often to wring out meaning with each careful mark. So… I do not want to dismiss the possibility of measurement, but I certainly want to be realistic regarding what cannot be measured that matters much more.

Ditto, I might say to John’s main point regarding antinomies. We resolve antinomies by deciding which of the values in conflict have greater meaning.

But John’s comment also suggests the value of what Ostrom calls “estimates in which indicators or proxy measure are used as estimates of performance.” Urban police work is data-driven as never before. The data gathered often points obliquely at what may (or may not) be happening in a particular neighborhood or network of neighborhoods. Floating along the data stream does not require we take action, but paying attention may still inform our choices.

Comment by hgrattan

December 6, 2011 @ 1:23 pm


Some rain should fall on the NYPD parade. It is neither the Thanksgiving nor Easter Parade nor is it a coming home from the war and all is now well parade.

NYPD is resilient in the sense that they adapted to asymmetric threats in innovate ways. While they are not able to thwart all terrorist attacks, they can thwart some, mitigate some, and recover in the same vein that they did in 2001.

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