“Whole of Community” has become a popular catch phrase in homeland security. Not quite as revered or misused as the term “resilience,” but proving a strong second.
Beginning as a simple, yet powerful, idea in FEMA (I think–if anyone can point to another origin, please share), the concept is that citizens, NGOs, and the private sector not just have a stake but a substantial role to play in all facets of homeland security. The operating paradigm within government had been that all such activities, besides a few important outliers such as the Red Cross, would be planned and carried out by government entities at some level.
In other words, government plans were for government folk. And if you don’t like it, tough–here’s a FOUO designation for those planning documents you were hoping to review. Whole of Community held out the promise of changing that mindset, and at least it has spread to other departments and the White House–in word if not deed.
While I’ve heard skeptics of the federal government’s embrace of the effort characterize it as a way to push back against the growing role the federal government plays in both physical and monetary response to disasters, I am of the opinion that it has the potential to overtime radically re-direct homeland security thinking away from federal centralization. However, recent items/events have suggested possible obstacles to that becoming a reality.
Like many things in life, it comes down to power and money. Power in terms of secrecy–who decides what information is shared with the Community. Money spent to support planning by all members of the Community, or perhaps just a select few depending to which opinion you listen.
Secrecy in the context of U.S. national security is usually thought of as protecting vital information from our adversaries (or potential adversaries, or even friends). The term “sources and methods” is often used to explain why you shouldn’t read a particular report–it could reveal from where or how the government gathers information. Yet secrecy is often used to leverage position and power over others through the control of access to information. In homeland security there are true secrets and then there is “For Official Use Only” (FOUO).
When government officials want to prevent a document from being widely distributed or made available to the general public, their friend is the FOUO designation. I’m confused to how homeland security information can be used non-officially (fun at parties?), but that is not the point. Power through control of information is often the goal, if not always an explicit one. Even if accomplished at the margins when a substantial number of law enforcement, first responders, and other officials receive documents that technically shouldn’t be released to the public.
Before the howls of protests begin, I am not a believer that all information deserves to be free. Refueling schedules for nuclear research reactors shouldn’t be posted in the local newspaper, nor should potential security weaknesses of critical infrastructure be reviewed on the internet as easily as yesterday’s baseball scores. However, the reflex to label everything FOUO is a detriment to moving forward with the Whole of Community approach. For example, see Phil’s recent post on a study of a terrorist nuclear attack on Washington, DC. He has a good point that it garnered greater attention due to the attempt to not make it public. However, this is exactly the type of event where a Whole of Community approach is not only beneficial but required. When weighing the pros and cons of making it FOUO, what is the best argument for not sharing it widely with the public? What sources or methods could be exposed? What could “the adversary” (the label du jour in Washington, DC for any man-made threat) learn which would make it easier for them to carry out a nuclear terrorist attack?
Is there a better way to balance legitimate security concerns with what Phil pointed out as “not a need to know, it’s a duty to share?” If the public is asked to say something if they see something, shouldn’t authorities do a better job describing that something? I concede these are not simple questions to answer, but firmly believe that the reflex toward not sharing still prevails within homeland security circles.
Money, money, money…even in the best of times it is a contentious issue. During times of constrained funding, especially at the state and local level, it is an even more fraught topic. What does this have to do with the Whole of Community? A lot. The rest of the “Community” outside of government is expected to contribute to all phases of homeland security, yet those parts outside of government are provided little, if any, in the way of financial support. One could argue it is in their best interest to include participation in these activities in their own budgeting processes, but one rarely sees similar flexibility in government planning at any level.
This all ultimately results in fights. And I don’t mean just some strongly worded statements released by local/state officials directed toward the federal government, or NGO workers grumbling about grant distribution. I’m talking Ultimate Fighting, smash mouth hockey, son/mother-in-law types of rumbles. They just seem a little more civilized on the surface.
For example, take the recent dust up in regards to the potential shift in language in the upcoming Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) fund that suggested that non-profits might be eligible to participate. Eric Holdeman at Emergency Management’s “Disaster Zone” blog reported on this story:
Alliances are being formed and warning letters are being sent. No, I’m not talking about Syria, but the potential for Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) funds to be shared with non-profits.
I blogged on this earlier this week and I hit a nerve on several fronts. Now the National Association of Counties and the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) have sent a joint letter, dated March 6th, to the FEMA Administrator asking that any proposal to share EMPG funds with nonprofits be withdrawn.
State and local emergency managers were celebrating the expansion of EMPG funding while other Homeland Security grant programs were contracted significantly in the 2012 budget. Now they see the “potential” for this funding to be reduced significantly because there are more faces to feed at the grant table.
Eric titled his posts the “Six Day EMPG War” and it concluded just as decisively:
As noted in my earlier blog posts on this subject there was a quick reaction by emergency management, led by the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) and supported by the National Association of Counties. There were also direct questions of FEMA Administrator Fugate when he appeared before Congress.
Combined, these actions put pressure on FEMA to change the grant guidance language.
Where I disagree with Eric, despite his lifetime of emergency management experience compared to my lifetime of enjoying vanilla ice cream, is that this is a greater win for preparedness in general. It does placate emergency management offices and stakeholder groups, succeeding in making them happier with officials in Washington. Yet in my mind it reverses a potential brick in building a true Whole of Community architecture. It’s nice that officials are being driven to invite non-traditional partners to the planning table, but those partners will not feel like partners if felt to be regulated to the Thanksgiving dinner kiddie table. In other words, they are expected to participate, contribute, and take ownership of parts of this issue….but don’t expect to get any official support for your efforts.
This general phenomena, taking different forms at different levels of government and among different professions, has earlier been posted on by Mark and Phil. In an effort to keep this blog post from becoming a long-form magazine article, I’ll let their words speak for themselves and hope that you can see similar issues emerging from the circumstances they describe.
At the end of the day, I am still a believer in the general mantra of the Whole of Community approach. I just hope that those responsible for its various moving parts begin to think more broadly about the effects that policies toward secrecy and funding have on the long term chances of this idea’s success. As I noted in my last post, local efforts can greatly contribute to this type of approach to homeland security. Yet concerns about secrecy/power—starting at the top in the federal government, but certainly trickling down to state and local officials who guard their newfound access by denying information to the rest of the Community—and money are a real threat that do not seem to have been recognized by advocates of this approach.