Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 11, 2012

National Preparedness Report: Voice, vision, and a reality beyond systems engineering

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 11, 2012

This is the second in a two-part consideration of the recently released National Preparedness Report.  Please see the prior discussion immediately below.


As was the case with NSC-68, the National Preparedness series is being authored by a collective.  This is the way of government.  Recall that Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration was edited first by a committee and then by the entire Continental Congress.  It is unusual for clarity of thought to survive such a process.

I know — and respect — several individuals who are contributing to the National Preparedness series.  I don’t know their individual contributions and have not asked for their private critiques, concerns, or enthusiasms.  I empathize with their struggle to deal with the tensions involved in generating any document of this sort — and even more, the challenges to practically advancing policy.

I am using the National Preparedness series to press my arguments and make my own contributions to national resilience. The documents are helpful to this work.  I appreciate the outcomes, even as I unfavorably compare the outcomes to the Declaration of Independence and NSC-68.

At least I did not choose Shakespeare and Lincoln as your benchmarks.

The music of the Declaration reflects the remnant of Thomas Jefferson’s voice that survived the editorial process.  The clarity-of-argument in NSC-68 is a double-echo of the dialectic between Kennan and Nitze.   In some ways, the document is Nitze’s edit of Kennan’s Long Telegram.  Two superb minds engaging the same problem, disagreeing, agreeing, refining and reframing.  In the end, Nitze’s voice was strongest, but he would not have sung this song without Kennan’s prelude.

If there is a principal author of the National Preparedness series I do not hear his or her voice.

This is typical of most government reports, even those, as from GAO or CRS, who identify specific authors.  There are a host of motivations for this default anonymity.  Potentially the most powerful — and least credible — is the desire to achieve a tone of omniscient authority.

By contrast, in both the Declaration and NSC-68 any discerning reader is fully aware an argument is being offered, a case is being made, counter-arguments are anticipated, a dialogue is assumed… even as the author(s) scrambles for the moral high ground and persuasive preemption.  With all his personal confidence, network of influence, and even with the power of the President’s pen expected, Nitze does not proclaim.  He describes.  He questions.  He argues.

Why is that sort  of voice so rare?

This is a substantive, not merely stylistic difference.  The vain attempt for omniscient authority asserts right-and-wrong and a claim to compliance.  Offering an argument honors  and invites the independent judgment of your readers.

From section VI, A of NSC-68:

The full power which resides within the American people will be evoked only through the traditional democratic process: This process requires, firstly, that sufficient information regarding the basic political, economic, and military elements of the present situation be made publicly available so that an intelligent popular opinion may be formed. Having achieved a comprehension of the issues now confronting this Republic, it will then be possible for the American people and the American Government to arrive at a consensus. Out of this common view will develop a determination of the national will and a solid resolute expression of that will.

Again, this was a classified document.  No one was trying to pander to a political audience.  The document itself circulated among mostly elite circles at a time when both classified documents and elite circles were more tightly contained than today.  What would be the reaction of “intelligent public opinion” if the National Preparedness series included the quoted paragraph?

What might it mean if Nitze actually believed and behaved as if the stated assumption were true? Do we?


Homeland security suffers from taxonomy-obsession.

What is prevention?  How is it differentiated from protection?  Doesn’t mitigation sometimes prevent?  Sometimes protect?  Isn’t mitigation often a “response” to a prior event?  When does response become recovery?  Are some events non-recoverable?  I have asked each of these questions in earnest more than once. (“Hi, my name is Phil, and I’m obsessive-compulsive regarding the seams between the homeland security mission areas.”)

There has been a persisting tendency to perceive that if we could just accurately frame the homeland security domain and its principal parts, we could then assign roles and responsibilities with clarity, fund appropriately, and craft the best of all possible worlds.

Systems engineering was especially hot at the turn of the century, perhaps this discipline is more a part of the homeland security field’s DNA than we have fully acknowledged.  Are we hard-wired by the time-and-place of homeland security’s genesis to constantly cycle through requirements analyses? (There’s a vision of hell if I’ve ever heard one.)

Whatever its source, there is a continuing fascination with finding the right taxonomy.  Below, again, is the National Preparedness framework of five mission areas and thirty-one core capabilities.  Farther below is Carl Linnaeus‘ taxonomy for the animal kingdom: six classes consisting of various orders, then families and so on (by clicking on the image you can see a larger version).  The parallels are, I think, remarkable.

If you are over 45 you probably have a vague memory of Linnaean taxonomy from 7th grade science.  If you’re under 45 and/or a biologist you know this system has been mostly superseded by other descriptive systems.  Linnaeus sought to distinguish by function. Many of the newer systems highlight origins and relationships.

Linnaeus advanced our understanding.  The five mission areas and 31 core capabilities also advance our understanding.  But the greatest value will almost certainly emerge from recognizing and making sense of the relationships across the mission areas and core capabilities.  There are, and will need to be, functional divisions within the homeland security “kingdom.”  But these divisions are means, not ends.

The November 2011 version of the National Preparedness System closes with the following two paragraphs:

While the National Preparedness System builds on a number of proven processes, it will evolve to capitalize on new opportunities and meet emerging challenges. Many of the programs and processes that support the components of the National Preparedness System exist and are currently in use; others will need to be updated or developed. As the remaining PPD-8 deliverables are developed, further details will be provided on how the National Preparedness System will be implemented across the five mission areas in order to achieve the National Preparedness Goal.

This document describes a collaborative environment and living system whose components will be routinely evaluated and updated to ensure their continued effectiveness. This environment will be supported through collaboration and cooperation with international partners, including working closely with our neighbors Canada and Mexico, with whom we share common borders. In the end,the National Preparedness System’s strength relies on ensuring the whole community has the opportunity to contribute to its implementation to achieve the goal of a secure and resilient Nation.

The National Preparedness System is emerging.  As it does, can it find a unique voice, well-matched to its extraordinary mission, capable of effectively advancing the purposes articulated in PPD-8?  As it emerges, can the National Preparedness System avoid the reductionist specialization that is endemic to modern organizations? With the second annual National Preparedness Report will we read and believe that relationships are being fostered across mission areas and core capabilities, among jurisdictions, and between private, public and civic sectors?

Linnaeus warned, “Nature does not proceed by leaps.”   Neither does the best policy-making.  But each can grow, change, and evolve.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 11, 2012 @ 7:50 am

We can often learn important things when their is a published minority point of view, no false unamity, second opinions, B-team efforts. But today all seem to desire a collective wisdom that lessens the need for options or keeping thinking. August 1914 seems the best example of the end point of being forced to stop thinking and execute plans.

So exactly how does a system of domestic crisis management and domestic crisis leadership and communications get built in the current doctrine? Should the WH be the EOC in a crisis, why or why not?

Should their be established roles and interconnections that can operate in various crisis situations from nuclear war, a nudet, or some other catastrophe? Why or why not?

And why does the Congress continue to be so inept in dealing with fundamental issues of domestic crisis management?

There are almost 1000 policy analysts in DHS alone! Wondering what they provide as options?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 11, 2012 @ 11:17 am

Bill, In the following I do NOT intend, at all, to be channeling current DHS, FEMA or other policy, just offering a personal judgment:

I think the worse the event, the more local (as local as possible) crisis leadership is needed. For example, it seems to me clear enough that in 2005 local leadership in New Orleans (maybe more broadly) was not prepared for the predictable surprise of the levees breaking. But my preferred solution is to advance a policy/strategy to encourage, reinforce, facilitate the strengthening of local, county, parish, tribal, intra-state regional, state, multi-state regional and private-public-civic readiness and resilience. I am not in favor of a centralized national crisis management system. (I am in favor of a national professional-development process, a national education process, and even a national planning process, but I am radically Jeffersonian when it comes to operations/leadership.)

Again, I am not claiming this is entirely congruent with official doctrine, but based on my own reading of strategic/operational potential, I see this sort of local center-of-gravity at the core of a great deal of the emerging National Preparedness System. Will the locals — meaning counties, states, etc. and non-official players — embrace the potential and their roles/responsibilities? I’m not sure. But these frameworks, seriously and honestly engaged, probably depend less on DC expertise and much more on dispersed expertise.

Why I think this is the better option would require more time than I have right now, but beyond personal experience I draw a good deal of my theoretical understanding from Elinor Ostrom’s work on what makes (and unmakes) resilient communities.

I will also readily admit to having sufficient uncertainty that I want to hear alternative perspectives.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 11, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

Question? Would all argue that the NPR is a status report on the present, analysis of the past, or what should happen in futuro?

Am I wrong that the NPR is largely cast in the future tense?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 11, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

Bill: Seems to me most of the language and analysis in the National Preparedness Report focuses on the data generated by State Preparedness Reports. The SPRs gather data on the recent-past. In this way the NPR is an analysis of the recent past. The NPR also highlights examples suggesting a snapshot of the present. There certainly is attention to implications, lessons-learned, and gaps-to-be-filled in the future.

According to the document itself, “…the 2012 NPR serves as a baseline evaluation of the progress made to date toward building, sustaining, and delivering the core capabilities described in the Goal. Taken together, progress across the 31 core capabilities highlights trends in national preparedness, emphasizing where the Nation has developed significant strengths and underscoring areas to improve.” (NPR, page 60)

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 12, 2012 @ 9:29 am

Respectfully I would suggest the STATE Preparedness Reports are at least 50% in error and maybe even deliberately falsified.

I would also suggest that it is the rare Governor or Mayor that really understands the vulnerabilities of the state or local government and how much it is reliant on outside assistance, including the 95% funded national guard.

Almost no Governors or Mayors are conversant in logistics systems, communications, and what exactly happens if governmental organizations are prevented by the event from responding. Much less if there is widespread contamination.

But hope does spring eternal. A new Heritage Foundation Report on a year later at FUKSIHIMA may be worth a blog post on HLSWatch.com.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 13, 2012 @ 7:19 am

The following was received from an individual who has requested anonymity and did not want a direct comment to be traceable. I appreciate his/her(?) confidence. I do not personally know the source.


The SPRs are profoundly suspect. Even when the intent is entirely honest, the states’ focus is almost always on non-catastrophic risks.

The level of preparedness for non-catastrophes is probably about as good as outlined in the NPR. Preparedness for catastrophe is far less robust.

What Mr. Palin calls the “emerging” National Preparedness strategy gives much more rhetorical attention to catastrophic potential than current grant-making gives the same. This is a particularly difficult gap to overcome. When the states, who originate grant requests and spend whatever is granted, don’t really engage the worst-case we are all put at higher risk.

I’m writing from inside the beast (state not Fed). I appreciate the empathy. Short of an actual catastrophe, I’m not sure what can really be done to align a reasonable strategy (PPD-8,NGP, NPS, NPR, ETC) to actual reality.

But to be clear, there is much less alignment than the NPR suggests.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

May 13, 2012 @ 11:22 pm

I don’t disagree with your general argument, though I’m not sure the comparison is fair. The National Preparedness Report is a product of a strategic vision (if it can be considered that), not the articulation of that vision itself.

NSC 68 is closer to a government strategic document, as the Long Telegram is probably best considered a policy piece. (And it was later revealed that Kennan strongly disagreed with the military-focus of the U.S. containment policies.)

Better perhaps to compare it with the first homeland security strategy said to be largely authored by Richard Falkenrath during the Bush Administration?

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 14, 2012 @ 2:20 am

It is always helpful to read the exact language for the mandate for an annual preparedness report from PKEMRA 2006!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 14, 2012 @ 4:16 am

Arnold, The Falkenrath strategy — and it is also my understanding he was the principal author — is a good example of my core argument. There is a distinctive voice and a largely consistent argument. A strategic vision is reinforced, reinserted, re-argued again and again across the document.

I disagree with a fair portion of the “Falkenrath Strategy”, but I perceive it is the best written and best argued of such documents emerging from the post-9/11 era. My ability to both appreciate and disagree — to join in the argument — is an important benchmark of the document’s quality.

Such core arguments, weaving in and out of operational details are, I think, what gives policy/strategy papers their fundamental value. The strategic vision briefly sketched in PPD-8 is bold, but it will require ongoing and equally bold advocacy to achieve real impact.

Comment by John F. Morton

May 14, 2012 @ 9:51 am

The comparisons between the various National Preparedness documents and NSC-68 are apt, for the period since 9/11 and Katrina represents a transition to a new strategic environement that is post-industrial and digital. The National Security Act of 1947 and NSC-68 established the National Security System we have today that reflects a thinking that went back to Wilson and the Preparedness Movement of 1916. The creation of DHS was an attempt to extend this paradigm along the Federal interagency horizontal dimension of governance by bringing together the proverbial 22 agencies. This industrial-era, top-down approach has perpetuated a federal-centric security and resilience system that is a single point-of-failure. The solution is not some sort of further lateral interagency fix akin to what Goldwater-Nichols achieved in 1986. What is needed is a codified structure and process that addresses the intergovernmental vertical dimension of governance in this Federal Republic–i.e., Federal, State, Local. Such would refer back to what this Nation was prior to World War One and industrialization, i.e., its Constitutional roots. The 21st century is becoming a post-industrial era driven by bottom-up, decentralized, networked ingenuity and freedoms. Witness what social media is achieving in disaster response, e.g., the work of Ushahidi in the Haitian response. The House report on Katrina said, “The preparation and response to Hurricane Katrina show we are still an analog government in a digital age.” It is time for serious implementation of a National Preparedness System to replace the National Security System for security and resilience, and that is an intergovernmental challenge that must acknowledge a bottom-up lead whereby the Federal Government is ONLY an enabler. In sum, we are moving in the right direction, slowly, but someone needs to call a spade and spade and provide a visionary framework. Here’s mine: Network Federalism.

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