Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 28, 2012

Dedication

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on March 28, 2012

I once thought dedication to duty was the hallmark of public service. especially among public safety professionals. Dedication seems to have taken on a different connotation though these days.

When people speak of dedication to public safety now, it usually refers to the commitment of resources without the need for justification, evaluation or competition. Dedicated resources are preferred. Competition for resources is not. The only thing worse than having to compete for resources is having to prove the resources allocated were spent well.

Fire services, unlike police, often have the luxury of dedicated funds if only because many of them operate outside county or municipal governance under special purpose districts. Most of these districts are funded by ad valorem taxes on real property. Since the beginning of the Great Recession or Great Reset or Whatever We’re Calling It Today — which led to the collapse of home prices — these special purpose fire districts have found their revenues not only constrained but falling for the first time in decades.

Some of these districts have managed to scrape by on reserves accumulated before the crash. Others have raised incremental tax rates to make up for the shortfall. But the revenues available from such quick-fixes and meagre cost-cutting gestures are running out. Now they are looking for alternatives.

The most popular alternative to the labor unions is amalgamation of fire service agencies. Contracting out administration of a fire district is preferable it seems to contracting out firefighting or ambulance transport services because it doesn’t affect bargaining unit members.

Union advocates of mergers and consolidations tell anyone who will listen that such moves will achieve scope and scale economies for citizens who will benefit from maintenance of existing staffing levels and response times. The experience of jurisdictions that have actually gone through the merger or consolidation process tells a different story.

Most combined fire service agencies achieve little economic benefit in the short-term. In fact, they often see short-term cost increases as the affected organizations struggle with integration (sound familiar, DHS?). Just as the turbulence begins to give way, these organizations often see the increased influence of combined bargaining units and new demands on the organization make it more difficult to settle labor agreements without experiencing increased operating costs. In the end, the best most combined fire agencies can achieve is reducing the rate of growth in their expenditures, which buys them time before the need for another reorganization.

It’s overly simplistic to assume that either the economy or the unions are to blame for this situation. Clearly, both parties played their parts. Elected officials and many administrators acted out supporting roles along the way too.

Cities and counties have been struggling with these problems for a bit longer. The power of the fire department to play on emotions for its share of the budget pie has been consistently and credibly eroded. Fire incidents and deaths are down. But the costs of providing fire service keep going up. Efforts to demonstrate any credible relationship or correlation between fire service inputs and fire outcomes has proven consistently elusive. Paying more for fire service does not generate better outcomes, especially when most of the increased cost goes into pay and benefits for employees who live outside the locales they protect.

In this context, merging municipal fire departments with fire districts often does little to improve the quality of fire service for either entity even when it secures the jobs of firefighters. More often than not, cities use resources from adjacent suburban and ex urban areas to prop up service delivery in the urban core. Competition among municipal departments for scarce city revenues makes it difficult if not impossible to balance the books so both cities and adjacent ex urban areas support their own weight despite any efficiencies achieved through joint oversight.

Scholarly studies of the situation paint conflicting pictures. Two impressive exposés on the effects of fire service cutbacks in New York City in the late 1960s and 1970s do demonstrate, however, what happens when cutbacks send a clear signal to the community that its protection is no longer a priority of government. In The Fires, Joe Flood chronicles the effects of the RAND Fire Project on urban policy. Flood paints a sympathetic picture of firefighters and the victims of urban blight. Although he would have readers believe that the effects of disinvestment in fire services were bad for cities, his analysis suggests a gradual shift in focus from services to outcomes led to better building codes and more attention to land use patterns that produced many other benefits.

An earlier work by Deborah Wallace, A Plague on Your Houses, presents compelling evidence that this withdrawal of urban fire services from the South Bronx and other neighborhoods under Mayor Lindsey sparked an underclass diaspora that spread drug abuse, crime and communicable disease across the city, if not the country. Wallace’s account is grounded not in sociology or urban policy, but rather public health and epidemiology. Clearly, forcibly uprooting and transplanting an entrenched urban underclass proved misguided and disruptive for both communities — those displaced and those receiving them. But the effects of these changes on fire service are less clearcut.

If the case for not cutting fire services seems clear enough — it can produce severe unintended consequences, consider three other scholarly efforts that look more closely at the fire service itself. The first, Crucible of Fire by Bruce Hensler suggests the form and function of today’s urban fire services is more the reflection of firefighters’ influence upon their service than the imprint of the urban environment and its demands upon them. Like their brothers and sisters-in-arms, firefighters it seems are always fighting the last war. In contrast, two other efforts, Eating Smoke by Mark Tebeau, and The Fireproof Building by Sara Wermiel, suggest that most of the credit for improvements in urban fire safety should go to engineers and fire insurance underwriters, not firefighters.

Social and political activism among firefighters is not new. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that accumulating and exercising social and political influence was always one of the primary purposes of these organizations. In Cause for Alarm, Amy Greenberg, follows this thread backwards several decades and illustrates how placing fire services under municipal governance was intended to curb rampant abuses of process and power. Alas, as we see today, these efforts have ultimately proved futile.

As I write this, the International Association of Fire Fighters is holding its legislative action conference in Washington, D.C. At the opening plenary session, IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said it as clearly as anyone could. Commenting on the union’s political priorities following last year’s efforts by governors and legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana to repeal collective bargain rights for public employees, “If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” He equated the effort to defend public employees from attack by politicians to a fight for the very survival of the middle-class. A parade of speakers, including politicians, political activists and union leaders followed to reinforce the message: Firefighters must be active politically to prevent further erosion of pay and benefits.

If this is the litmus test for fire service political support, then I can see why we have a problem. Looking at the problem critically and considering the evidence for and against continued investments in fire service based upon past precedents is not an option. Firefighters will tell you they already know the right answer, they don’t need more evidence much less debate. (See a recent blog post by former deputy fire chief, lawyer and physician’s assistant John K. Murphy for example.)

These days, it seems, firefighters are dedicated to putting whatever effort is required into protecting their jobs, pay and benefits. We can only hope citizens and elected officials are equally dedicated to constructively shaping public priorities to reflect their interests in efficiency and accountability.

 

March 20, 2012

Worth Another Look: The application of cost management and life cycle cost theory to homeland security national priorities

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on March 20, 2012

I have no idea how many articles, reports, books, opinion pieces, news stories, journal articles, videos, tweets, or other data and information products have been generated during homeland security’s first decade.

Whatever the number, topic or quality, they represent homeland security’s literature.

As a part of my day job, I’m interested in learning what we know about homeland security, and what we don’t know about it that we should know.

Starting a year or so ago, I asked friends and colleagues to tell me about interesting reading and related materials they believe are worth a second look. Thanks to their efforts, I’ve gathered a collection of about 100 brief reviews of items worth another look. And by brief, I mean less than 500 words.

One day I hope to gather the reviews under a single cover (or whatever the eEquivalent of “cover” is) and make them available to people who care about homeland security.

Until (and if) that happens, I plan to post a few of them occasionally on this blog.

———————

Arnold’s “being sent to the minors” post reminded me of the following article, suggested by Robert Giorgio, the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, fire chief.

The article first appeared in May 2009.  Some of the context and language has been overcome by events.  But Robert and I agree the life cycle cost idea continues to have merit — probably even more than it did 3 long years ago.

———————

The Application of Cost Management and Life Cycle Cost Theory to Homeland Security National Priorities.

By Robert Hall and Erica Dusenberry Dimitrov

The homeland security enterprise remains unable to identify the total costs to acquire and sustain specific homeland security target capabilities or national priorities over fixed periods of time. This problem has persisted since the start of federally supported DHS grant funded programs.

Homeland security officials realize that initial DHS investments did not consider the cost of wear from use, maintenance expenditures, rehabilitation costs, and replacement funding streams. Many local governments also neglected sustainment costs in their homeland security fiscal planning.

Once the excitement of a new capability has worn off, sustainment issues emerge.  The costs of maintaining new capabilities have to be compared with other core expenditures. Knowing the full cost of a capability provides decision makers and analysts with a more accurate fiscal picture as they debate local policy choices.

Hall and Dimitrov do more than agree it is critically important to determine the costs associated with achieving and sustaining target levels of capability. They suggest how to do it.

They recommend using life cycle cost theory (LCC), a methodology for assessing the total cost of owning an asset. LCC is intended to aid decision makers understand the full costs of obtaining and sustaining preparedness capabilities.

LCC helps quantify the costs of the people, planning, organization, equipment, training, and exercise that make up a capability.

The Government Accountability Office supports using LCC to determine what agencies and jurisdictions can afford, to prepare coordinated spending plans, and to develop lifecycle cost practices.

LCC can help local, state, and federal officials forecast annual support and replacement costs for homeland security programs. LCC can also generate data necessary to monitor the cost drivers that waste limited investment funds. The authors claim adopting LCC will assist in maturing cost management practices and help to avoid what they term unprofitable pitfalls.

To illustrate their claim, Hall and Dimitrov apply the LCC methodology to the Explosive Device Response Operations (EDRO) target capability.

The authors conclude the article by identifying next steps needed to develop and apply LCC methods to national preparedness. These actions include:

  1. Focusing on capabilities aligned to the national priorities in the National Preparedness Guidelines.
  2. Conducting a national-level LCC analysis for each national priority capability.
  3. Creating and sharing prototype tools with jurisdictions to facilitate use of this methodology.
  4. Creating a central Web-enabled database to share cost models among jurisdictions.
  5. Incorporating LCC tools into future grant management systems for use by state and local jurisdictions.

The article is three years old.  I wonder what, if any, progress has been made employing LCC or something close to it to homeland security.  If limited progress, why?  If something like this has spread within the homeland security enterprise, I wonder what effect it’s had.

 

March 7, 2012

What’s Good for Us

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on March 7, 2012

Efforts to improve the efficiency and accountability of government services, as I discussed last week, are more likely to involve questions of quality than quantity. This, of course, presents certain problems, in part because our judgments about such things are influenced not only by different perspectives but also different values.

As the nation’s political discourse has become more hostile and divisive, I have discerned equally clear and consistent calls for consensus. To me, these calls often strike a dissonant chord, that comes across more like, “Be reasonable, do it my way,” than “What can we do that will satisfy everyone.” I chafe at this suggestion not because I dislike agreement (or alternatively, like disagreement), but rather because of the dangers such mindsets pose in monocultures.

Sadly, too many public safety organizations present just such problems. Not long ago, many public safety organizations suffered under the self-imposed oppression of autocratic, top-down management styles. Today, the pendulum has, in too many instances, swung too far the other direction. Some agencies are, in the words of a colleague, in danger of letting “the inmates run the asylum.” (The corollary to this perspective goes something like this: “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but you might find it helpful.”)

Recently, some people have tried to convince me that this new cultural orientation reflects a generational shift in the workforce, others argue it is evidence of maturity or even diversity. (“We all agree, so anyone who disagrees with us is not only wrong but self-serving, petty, immature and intolerant.”) Consider me less than convinced.

Instead, what I see is a growing tendency to promote consensus as a way to avoid making decisions. It works this way: If I agree with you or you with me, I will support you and urge others to follow your direction. If what you suggest does not benefit me, even if it might arguably benefit others, I will not only refuse to support you, but I will actively organize others to oppose you. Moreover, if you don’t take the hint and desist from the course of action I dislike, I will attack you personally.

I find some of the most supportive and compliant people in my organization are the youngest and least senior employees. That is not to say, however, that they are the least experienced or mature. Note this distinction: Many of the employees with limited tenure in my organization defer to positional power not only because they lack tenure, but also because they often bring diverse experience outside public safety agencies to their positions. Put simply, they appreciate their positions in the organization and are usually more prepared to play them because they have no expectations of preferential much less deferential treatment. In many cases, they view their jobs as just that: a job, not an entitlement or a calling or a vocation or a profession. They work to live, not live to work.

Much of the conflict I experience in the workplace involves what I term “violent agreement.” Put another way, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” These days, it seems when people get what they want it often comes to them as a surprise. The problems this poses are amplified by the fact that many of their requests come in without goals or priorities attached.

This problem operates at all levels of the homeland security system. When I worked for a regional professional organization of public safety executives in the mid-1990s, I cautioned the board I worked for that their requests of Congress to expand federal grant opportunities would come at significant cost to them in the long run. As more resources became available, I suggested, more people would begin lining up at their desks with their palms extended. And as the line grew, they could expect that it would require them to pile the bills higher and higher to meet any one demand just so they could move on to the next one. And if, heaven forbid, the money stopped flowing, so too would the gratitude and support they received from those lining up to tell them how important and respected they were.

I would like to say I was proved wrong in my prediction, but sadly the evidence suggests otherwise. In addition to what I predicted, we have also experienced something I only feared. Ready access to more resources clearly made many public safety organizations less creative, flexible and responsible. In many ways, this has made them less reasonable as well. Not only are many public safety professionals unprepared to respond to calls for new ways of doing things close to their core business, they are also incredibly incensed that anyone would have the temerity to expect this of them. Two of the many examples of this that have come to my attention in recent weeks involve the cities of San Jose, California and Phoenix, Arizona.

In San Jose, an IBM Global Business Services team has recommended significant changes in the way the city manages fire department resources. For starters, they have openly questioned the practice of allocating firefighting resources to equalize or at least minimize disparities in response times across a geographic area. They have rightly noted that evidence of the effectiveness of this strategy is not only lacking, but that much of the evidence that does exist suggests marginal improvements in response times greater than three minutes and less than ten minutes do not pay in aggregate. In other words, they are inefficient because it costs more to shave a few seconds off average response times than any additional firefighting crew can ever hope to save in fire losses. The same can be said of emergency medical service, where the evidence points to bystander interventions, particularly CPR and automatic external defibrillators as key factors in improving outcomes in cases of witnessed cardiac arrest.

What makes the San Jose case even more interesting is the fact that IBM suggests a risk-based resource allocation as an alternative. This would result in staffing fluctuations based on trends in call volume and severity. It might also result in more units, staffed with fewer people being based in more flexible locations. Which is to say, it sounds an awful lot like the way private-sector ambulance services manage themselves already.

This, of course, not only frightens, but also angers firefighters. You see, EMTs who only ride ambulances get paid far less than firefighters. Using firefighters to perform roles as EMTs may make them more productive, but it does not improve efficiency and is thus steadfastly opposed by most firefighters.

Meanwhile, in Phoenix, the management consulting firm Management Partners, has recommended replacing many uniformed officers with lower-paid but similarly or better-qualified civilian staff. This and other interventions, including new technology for compiling electronic patient care reports in the field, could save the city as much as $5.1 million per year.

Both cities face some formidable challenges in implementing their consultants’ visions. San Jose has already cut staffing by 18 percent since the recession began. Their firefighters union is openly hostile to absorbing any further cuts.

Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan has defended his department’s performance by arguing that joint labor-management committees have already begun implementing many of the consultant’s recommendations. I suspect this means they are happy to implement the ones they like — those that do not offend anyone, but expect a fight over the rest.

All this leaves me wondering why, in an era when public safety employees like many in the public itself openly question the old saw, “What’s good for GM is good for America,” they still believe that what’s good for them is what the community wants, expects and supports. When job security, pay and benefits trump public safety, I have to wonder. I wonder no less though when these same things (masquerading as public safety) are said to trump efficiency and accountability.

It is not my place to tell the public they cannot have public safety, efficiency and accountability all at once. It is not my responsibility to defend job security, pay and benefits that far exceed the median household incomes of those who pay for these services. And it is not reasonable to assume they – the public – will tolerate public service leaders who will accept or make such arguments for very much longer.

 

February 22, 2012

Disloyal

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on February 22, 2012

I’ll make this post a short one. (I’d rather be in Christchurch, where today they marked the first anniversary of the devastating February 22 aftershock that claimed 185 lives.) The attention drawn by last week’s post, if not here at least on my personal website, has created quite a stir, at least where I work.

It seems any effort to critically evaluate our current situation is viewed as disloyalty. Tonight, representatives of organized labor appeared in public to make it very clear they do not like being called out for their affiliations. They like even less having their methods of operation, if not motives, called into question.

Homeland security does not need cheerleaders or band leaders or nannies. It needs people willing to ask difficult questions even when the answers prove troubling.

I am convinced that the systems we rely on to maintain secure communities are crumbling. Choices that once seemed easy are now almost impossible even for intelligent men and women of goodwill. Rather than discussing whether we repair a bridge before the next catastrophe, we are forced to invest in the response capability to handle its collapse. Instead of investing in quality public education, we argue about mandatory prison sentences for repeat offenders and lowering the age at which we impose capital punishment.

In many ways, this is the byproduct of a self-fulfilling prophecy that began taking shape when we started to question the very premise of public service in the late 1970s. Today, we have what we should have feared most: Civil servants paralyzed by ambivalence not apathy. When forced to choose between their welfare and that of others, the choice for many is altogether too simple, especially after years of being told to keep their opinions to themselves.

They may not want to make decisions, but they certainly have opinions. Often many different ones about the same subject. And they are all too happy expound them with militant fervor to anyone who will listen and many who would care not to.

Never mind their opinions conflict with one another or with fundamental laws of nature or the universe. But watch out if you dare to disagree with what they have to say!

February 15, 2012

Love Is Not Enough

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on February 15, 2012

You may have noticed that I have become a bit less regular about posting in my usual Wednesday slot of late. This reflects the combined effect of having too few cogent ideas about what to say and too little spare time to reflect on expanding the list.

The shortage of time arises largely from the demands of my day job as a local fire chief. If you ask the firefighters who work for me, they would probably tell you that the lack of cogent ideas is also closely connected to the job. As they like to tell me, CHAOS stands for Chief Has Arrived On Scene.

I’d like to think I am just as capable of coming up with something insightful and useful to say as I ever was. But that may be less true than I would like to admit.

Lately, the nasty issues swirling around me in my day job have come attached to people with equally nasty attitudes. People in local government are feeling very fearful and stressed about the future of their jobs. Although I would like to reassure them that things will turn out alright, they wouldn’t believe me even if it was true. And it may not be.

The little fire district I work for grew up too quickly. Now a fully-paid, career fire and rescue service employing almost 70 people, it was a volunteer outfit composed of civic-minded citizens for much of its existence. The real change began in the 1980s and 1990s when property values started to climb and development intensified. A municipal incorporation formalized governance of a part of the district, but much of it remains unincorporated even today. As the district took on paid employees, they gradually displaced the volunteers. Union representation of these employees means constant vigilance for evidence of skimming work, which means volunteers will probably never return.

Instead, the represented employees seem most likely to either work themselves out of a job or drive their employer to insolvency. It should be clear enough without much effort or thought that the first option is not terribly likely. The alternative may be on the horizon, but efforts to delay the inevitable reckoning have worked so well so far that few people believe it is actually possible.

A careful examination of how this has come to pass is pretty informative. First, firefighters have been incredibly effective at making themselves look busy, if not useful. An ever decreasing fraction of their work involves fighting or preventing fires. Factors beyond their control or ken have seen to it that this work is less necessary now than ever. Emergency medical calls and a host of other responses have filled the void left by decreasing fire activity, and now occupy 70 to 80 percent of fire service workload. The skills required to perform many of these new roles take hundreds of hours to acquire and maintain even when they are rarely used or tested.

This has made firefighters seem indispensable, which brings me to my second observation. When I was a kid, firefighters were respected, but not really revered. There was rarely a long line of applicants competing for jobs in the fire department. The work was dirty, hard, poorly paid and involved impossibly long hours. (and this remains the case in many other countries.) That changed quickly here starting in the 1970s. Today, firefighters in my community like many others earn salaries far above the median household income. And we work for a reasonably well-off community, so that’s saying something. You don’t have to look hard for evidence of how well-paid our firefighters are. The parking lot tells quite a tale, as my wife’s unemployed city planner friends have remarked on more than one occasion.

Unlike the volunteers they replaced, few of the firefighters in my agency live in the community they protect. A few live more than 100 miles away. The 48-hour work schedule accommodates this, and few demands beyond attending calls, training and performing routine maintenance means such long shifts present few hazards. Despite their unusual work schedules, firefighters in my agency get ample time-off. Our average employee works just a little more than 42 hours per week after vacation, holidays and other time adjustments.

By making themselves available to handle almost anything anyone might think to throw at them, firefighters have managed to do what no other public servants have yet accomplished: While much of the public loathes government, citizens love firefighters and rarely think of them as government employees. In fact, many people have no idea that the people protecting them are paid, much less paid well. Many people seem genuinely surprised when they learn that the firefighters work around the clock.

How could this have escaped their attention? Easily it turns out.

This brings me to my last observation: Firefighters show up. Always.

With all due respect to my friends the police, this is not true even of other emergency services. We have become so accustomed to waiting for service and not getting what we really want when it does arrive that we are genuinely surprised and generally delighted when someone responds at all.

Because firefighters have taken it upon themselves to be indispensable, they almost always look busy. Even when they aren’t particularly effective.

Truth is, we aren’t much more effective at putting out fires than we were right after they replaced the horses with motorized fire engines. Even now, if a fire gets a good enough head-start in any building, we will always play catch-up, which means waiting for the fire to consume enough fuel and get small enough again that we can put it out with the water and personnel available. Sometimes, I think the more overmatched we are, the more overwhelmed we look, the more impressed people are with our performance.

Fires don’t much care whether we have a good attitude or a bad one. When firefighting was all we did, I knew a lot of firefighters you wouldn’t want to take out in public. With the advent of emergency medical service, we have had to emphasize the soft-side. Firefighters these days are experts at displaying empathy. As such, they endear themselves to almost everyone they encounter. In the small number of instances where this does not happen, the other party often comes across worse, so firefighters can get a free pass even when they might not deserve one.

All of this may seem pretty cynical. And it probably is. People may love firefighters, but this economy has meant giving up a lot of other things we love. If firefighters become too expensive, they too shall pass. And their lack of strong connections in the communities they serve will be what decides their fate.

This should concern homeland security professionals if only because they too have come to depend on firefighters’ willingness to take on added jobs. If not firefighters, then to whom shall we turn to protect our communities?

February 13, 2012

First blush look at the DHS budget

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,DHS News — by Philip J. Palin on February 13, 2012

An online version of the full 200 plus page President’s budget proposal is available from the White House.  The Department of Homeland Security budget proposal starts on page 117.   The total DHS budget amount is nearly the same as last year.  There are, however, some important internal shifts.

Homeland Security Funding Highlights per White House and OMB (direct quote from budget proposal):

Provides $39.5 billion,a decrease of 0.5 percent or $191 million,below the 2012 enacted level.The Budget continues strong investments in core homeland security functions such as the prevention of terrorist attacks,border security,aviation security, disaster preparedness, and cybersecurity.

Savings are created through cuts in administrative costs and the elimination of duplicative programs.The Budget also supports disaster relief through a cap adjustment, consistent with the Budget Control Act.

Makes $853 million in cuts to administrative categories including travel, overtime,and fleet management,and eliminates duplicative and low-priority programs.

Maintains frontline homeland security operations, supporting 21,186 Customs and Border Protection officers and 21,370 Border Patrol agents to facilitate legitimate travel and the movement of goods while strengthening border security.

Supports the recovery of States and communities that have been devastated by disasters and emergencies with $6.1 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, which includes $5.5 billion in disaster relief cap adjustments pursuant to the designation established in the Budget Control Act.

Strengthens Government cybersecurity by providing $769 million to improve security of Federal civilian information technology networks while enhancing outreach to State and local governments and critical infrastructure sectors.

Promotes innovation and economic growth by providing $650 million to fund important research and development advances in cybersecurity, explosives detection, and chemical/biological response systems.

Eliminates duplicative, stand-alone FEMA grant programs, consolidating them into a new National Preparedness Grant Program to better develop, sustain,and leverage core capabilities across the country while supporting national preparedness and response.

Aligns resources with risk in immigration detention by focusing on criminal aliens, repeat immigration law violators, recent border entrants, immigration fugitives,and other priorities,and expanding resources for electronic monitoring and intensive supervision.

Initiates acquisition of a new polar ice breaker and continues recapitalization of Coast Guard assets, including $658 million to construct the sixth National Security Cutter.

End of quote

–+–

Earlier today, practically simultaneous with the release of the President’s budget,  DHS distributed to many previous grant recipients guidance that will administratively advance the consolidation of FEMA grants referenced above.

January 25, 2012

SOTU: ‘Osama’s dead, GM’s alive’

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,Events — by Mark Chubb on January 25, 2012

A short time before President Obama delivered the annual state of the union address to a joint session of Congress, a media outlet I follow Tweeted a summary attributed to Vice President Joe Biden: “Osama bin Laden is dead, GM is alive.” The president spoke for more than an hour this evening, but that just about sums it up from a homeland security perspective.

The elimination of bin Laden and the routing of al-Qaeda’s leadership since President Obama took office is arguably the singular foreign policy accomplishment of his presidency. His administration achieved much of its success on this front by all but ignoring promises it made to its political base and taking actions even his Republican predecessors seemed to shy away from in scale if not necessarily in scope.

It might not be fair to suggest that President Obama’s admiration for the military expanded with his ascendence to the office of commander-in-chief. The two most significant role models in his young life beyond his own mother were his maternal grandparents in Kansas. His grandfather, he reminds us, served in Patton’s army while his grandmother assembled bombers back home. The experiences that shaped them clearly left an indelible impression on him as a young man and inspire his sense of duty even today.

The president’s address tonight made it clear that he sees the armed forces as a model of what America can be when it tries to be its best. In many ways, I agree. The U.S. armed forces are truly a model of diversity, innovation and adaptability. But what can be said of the armed forces cannot necessarily be said of the armed services.

Of those American institutions that did not atrophy from lack of attention or loss of investment, many have become sclerotic as money, influence-peddling and political polarization have conspired to clog the arteries of our democracy. The resulting death spiral threatens the American Dream and has all but snuffed out our faith in a better future. From his opening remarks to his conclusion, the president called upon Americans to see in the can-do example of our fighting forces the inspiration to revive our democracy and the incentive to renew our nation.

As with previous addresses, the president emphasized the need to establish clear priorities and make smarter choices. He called on Congress to work with his administration to create an America “built to last.” To do this, he called for the restoration of an economy “where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everybody plays by the same set of rules.”

Calls for renewed investments in education, energy innovation and infrastructure took center stage once again this year despite the president’s acceptance of the need to make further spending cuts in other areas, including entitlements. At several points, he noted how government investment had created the very opportunities our men and women under arms have fought to protect and that have benefited the wealthiest among us.

The president’s address not only displayed the rhetorical strengths for which he is rightly admired by supporters and reviled by opponents. His remarks also revealed a growing sense of pragmatism and purpose. The president made it clear that he will meet Congressional obstruction with action. One particularly clear indication of his intentions come from his emphasis on regulatory reforms that will enable some of the savings from defense cuts to be put to work on “nation-building right here at home.”

Before President Obama arrived on Capitol Hill tonight, Speaker of the House John Boehner remarked to the media that the president’s address would amount to little more than a campaign stump speech. Clearly, this president knows the campaign has already begun. And he knows too that re-election is no certainty. But he also seems more committed to reinforcing his accomplishments and taking the fight to his opponents than he did last year.

Something tells me any effort by Republicans to prematurely rewrite Biden’s pre-SOTU summary to serve as an epitaph for this administration — “Obama’s dead, America’a alive” — have another think coming.

January 12, 2012

Potentially “catastrophic wildfire season”

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on January 12, 2012

FROM TODAY’S WALL STREET JOURNAL:

California is gearing up for what officials say could be a catastrophic wildfire season following what so far has been one of the driest winters on record.

Hundreds of wildfires have broken out in what is typically a season with few fires, forcing fire officials to add staff. An unexpectedly busy wildfire season starting in the spring could worsen California’s budget woes, with its deficit for the next fiscal year projected at $9.2 billion.  MORE

January 11, 2012

Disillusioned

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on January 11, 2012

I have wondered before in my posts exactly what it is we suppose we are protecting. And my mind keeps wandering back to this question, especially as the presidential primaries begin.

The Republican candidates have asserted that President Obama is an apologist or worse, and they claim he sees America as a declining or diminished power. They assert that they see America differently. They would have us believe that Americans are innately different from others and somehow special.

They do not agree so much on what it is that makes us different or special though. To some of them we are freer. Others say we have higher morals. Still others say we have a stronger work ethic. If they agree on anything, it is that their leadership — or that of any Republican for that matter — is the key to making us more of these things.

More than one candidate has gone so far as to suggest he or she is running to save the country. They have asserted strongly that President Obama has made us less free, less moral and weaker. The solution, they tell us, is not just to defeat him but to shrink government.

This blog devotes a lot of time to the discussion of what our national security and homeland security investments protect us from, but not so much about what it is that we are protecting. Is that because it doesn’t matter? Or are we of the belief that we really are different and serve something bigger than any candidate or party?

During the Cold War, it was clear to most of us that we were not only protecting the nation from nuclear annihilation but also from the threat of totalitarianism. Our nuclear deterrent capabilities were arrayed against the threat of tyranny, or so we believed.

If that’s true, we could say that we won the battle but lost the war. As communism collapsed we enslaved ourselves to a corporate military-industrial complex that now dominates us in proportion to the extent to which we have allowed it to define, if not dictate, our productive and political potentials.

As a local public safety official, I spend most of my time focused on the homeland defense frontlines. When I look out at my community, I do not see the same thing the candidates do. The people I meet do not talk in terms of the lofty ideals of liberty and free enterprise. They don’t see themselves as all that different from one another or others they do not know.

Instead, they wonder why traffic is so bad or the bus always runs late. They wonder whether their kids are acquiring the skills they need to compete for jobs in the future. They wonder whether they themselves will earn enough to pay the mortgage or tuition bills. They worry incessantly whether they will have enough resources to retire. And they hope like hell that the problem they called us to help them with will not leave them unable to keep on carrying on.

In one way or another, they know that much of what worries them and others arises from anxiety about the future and frustration with the present. They would like to do right. They know they can do better. But they also wonder whether anyone will recognize and whether it will make any difference. Many if not most of them have concluded it will not.

Most of the work done by our frontline first-responders is now about holding a badly broken system together, keeping it from getting worse rather than making it better. We have no confidence that the market will solve these problems. We have little faith that politicians understand the problems, and much less hope that they will give us the resources and support required to address them properly.

That said, many of our first-responders, like the candidates for our nation’s highest office, have a misplaced, if not exaggerated, faith in their own ability to make a difference. They may not trust politicians, but they do believe they are different and special. They have great confidence that they could do better if only they were allowed the resources and opportunity to do so.

I’m not so sure.

Rather than looking for ways to help people avoid trouble and reduce their dependence on our services, we look for ways of getting more resources to expand our services or make better arguments to defend our budgets from those we deem less worthy of public support. The past decade was a Godsend in that respect. But the days of plenty are gone.

Our brute force approach to solving problems only works well when the threat and the capability to effect consequences are tightly coupled. Our contemporary adversaries surprised us with their ability to level the playing field. We managed to counter their threat, but at a cost far out of proportion to any ability they ever had to make us pay.

When it comes to saving lives at the local level, we know that training more people to perform CPR and encouraging healthier lifestyles by promoting development that favors walking and cycling would save more people than reducing EMS response times, but we won’t support the former unless politicians commit to do the latter. The debate at the national level is no more sensible. We are not only told we have to choose between guns and butter, but also that the economic and political system that provides both of them is more essential and therefore more valuable than the people who provide the resources to procure and produce them.

It is still true that Americans as a whole are wealthier than those of most other nations. We have been better endowed with resources and opportunity than most other nations. And we have had the benefit of many great gifts, often as the result of our openness and accessibility to people and ideas from every corner of the world.

Liberty and free-enterprise have played their parts in the American success story. But so too have access to public education and libraries, enforcement of health and sanitation regulations, and investments in water, sewer, public transit and other essential infrastructure. We will only see America become stronger if we place as much or more emphasis on making these investments as we do in protecting them.

Sadly, that seems less and less likely in the near term at both the national and local levels.

January 10, 2012

Words Have Meanings

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on January 10, 2012

The Christian Science Monitor noted the sentencing of 37-year old Kevin Harpham in federal court a few weeks ago.  He was charged with four counts, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, possession of an unregistered explosive device, and attempt to cause bodily injury with an explosive device because of race issues.

Harpham received a 32-year prison sentence for leaving a pipe bomb in a backpack along the intended route of a Martin Luther King Day march in Spokane, Washington, on January 17, 2011 — a year ago, next week. The pipe bomb held fishing weights coated with an anticoagulant associated with rat poison, which would have been ejected into the crowd by black powder ignited by a model rocket igniter. It didn’t work, fortunately for the march participants.

This story was of interest to me for two reasons. First of all, we have the FBI’s Seattle office describing Harpham as a “prototypical lone wolf;” the challenge being that there was no foreshadowing of a carefully planned attack. He hasn’t been named as a “homegrown terrorist” only because he was not directly or indirectly associated with a transnational terrorist group. While both Harpham and Faisal Shazad could both be appropriately identified as “domestic terrorists,” Harpham avoids the designation of “homegrown” only because he acted on his own.

It’s not that Harpham wasn’t associated with violent extremist groups. After a tour in the U.S. Army, he became an active member of the National Alliance, a white supremacy group. So it appears you get a pass from being called a “homegrown terrorist” if you’re a card-carrying member of a white supremacy group, but not if you’re an American citizen influenced by radical Muslim clerics based overseas.

Are these distinctions helpful? I’m not sure that they are. Both appear to be “lone wolves” in nature; the color of one’s skin and connections to overseas, rather than domestic, radical organizations do not appear to be useful discriminators.

I also have to notice that both Harpham and Shazad were both charged with attempting to use weapons of mass destruction, even though this was only a legal distinction  (Title 18 USC 2332a) and not a “WMD” incident in any sense of reality.

Neither the pipe bomb (Harpham) or an exploding propane tank (Shazad) could in any sense cause a mass casualty event. Neither device could be called equivalent to what the United Nations defines as a WMD – that is to say, a nuclear device or chemical or biological warfare agents.

So why does this bother me so?

In the DHS Quadrennial Homeland Security Report, Secretary Janet Napolitano calls on a “Homeland Security Enterprise” that includes the Departments of Justice, Defense, State, and the intelligence community. Only one agency uses the Title 18 definition of WMD – that would be the Department of Justice. So when the Defense Department reviews its “CBRN Enterprise” for homeland security, it uses a different definition, focusing on chemical, biological, and radiological hazards and nuclear devices used within U.S. borders.  The National Guard’s 57 WMD Civil Support Teams (CSTs) and its 17 CBRNE Emergency Response Force Packages (CERFPs) don’t do explosive threats (but the 20th Support Command [CBRNE] does, under specific scenarios). The Marine Corps CBIRF doesn’t do explosive threats, but the Navy EOD does provide experts for that niche. There is no agreement across the federal government on terminology (or perhaps, they agree to disagree).

The reason why this disturbs me is this: As the National Guard fiercely defends the continued deployment and sustainment of its CSTs and CERFPs, it remains a fact that the threat of a domestic – or transnational – terrorist group successfully using CBRN hazards to cause mass casualties is remarkably insignificant, for all practical purposes, zero.

There is no “WMD” threat out there.

There may be limited incidents involving industrial chemicals, attempts to derive ricin from castor beans, dreams of exploding heavy metal radioactive isotopes, but nothing that can be appropriately called a “mass casualty” capability. Nothing that the locals can’t handle.

But as long as the National Guard Bureau can point to the FBI’s documented list of “attempted WMD” cases, someone will claim that this justifies having this huge federal response force around, spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars every year just to sit and wait for the firehouse bell to ring. Because hey, it’s not as if the U.S. government had any real budget concerns.

I know that Congress will never let the U.S. military get rid of these costly luxuries. They’re show-pieces, political promises that if a WMD incident ever happens, well, by golly, won’t you be glad when the CSTs and CERFPs show up – hours after the state and local emergency responders have done the heavy lifting.

It’s a strategy, I suppose. Just not one I’m willing to endorse.

But at the least, the fact that the U.S. government cannot agree on the definition of “weapons of mass destruction” (or for that matter, consequence management) is glaringly apparent. We ought to at least be able to agree – and codify – one definition that defines a WMD as an incident involving nuclear, biological, or chemical munitions in a situation resulting in a mass casualty event – and then define what a mass casualty event is.

Little things like this keep me up at night.

 

December 6, 2011

Nuclear Apples to Citizen Oranges?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Arnold Bogis on December 6, 2011

While certainly not surprising, the juxtaposition of the following stories concerning the issue of federal funding of particular national/homeland security issues puts into context (for me at least) where the notion of “resilience” lies in our national security hierarchy.

Nuclear apples first: apparently there has been some consternation regarding a Ploughshares report that estimated “$700 billion in spending “on nuclear weapons and related programs during the next ten years.”” The kerfuffle led to opinions from the Washington Post and bloggers (on a side note, one of the commentators on the blog is science historian Alex Wellerstein, who not only makes the great point that the yearly average for maintaining our nuclear arsenal is roughly equivalent to the budget of the Manhattan Project, but posts some incredibly wonky/historically fascinating nuclear tidbits on his own blog: http://nuclearsecrecy.com/blog/). Whether the exact address is closer to $200 billion or $700 billion is not of great importance for my point, rather note the general neighborhood.

Citizen oranges: on a recent “Disaster Zone” post, Eric Holdeman shares an email written by an emergency manager from Alabama who expressed some concern about funding levels for Citizen Corps and related programs.This individual’s comments came after hearing FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino speak at a conference:

The Honorable Richard Serino pointed out that 33 billion was spent to improve infrastructure for search and rescue and communications over the last 10 years.

I do not accept the current financial environment as an excuse to cut Citizens Corps funding; not when FEMA and DHS are adamant about citizen preparedness.

This is a great opportunity for FEMA and DHS to put the money where their mouth is. I can assure each of you citizen preparedness is significantly cheaper than communications infrastructure or search & rescue training, mobilization and equipment.

The argument concerning nuclear weapons is in the neighborhood of hundreds of billions over ten years.  Communication equipment for first responders received tens of billions over ten years (including the flush years following 9/11). For FY 2011, Citizen Corps was allocated just about $10 million dollars.

Is resilience truly considered a priority by the federal government? If so, does the current operating definition include private citizens or is it limited to government programs, critical infrastructure, and other easily quantifiable categories?

September 30, 2011

Happy new (fiscal) year!

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on September 30, 2011

Today concludes the federal fiscal year.  The new year begins tomorrow.  The United States finishes the current year deep in debt. We do not yet have a budget for the new year.

The Senate has adopted a continuing resolution to provide funding through November 18. Late Thursday morning a small rump of the House adopted a CR to provide through October 4 by which time  the full House is expected to concur with the November 18 date.

Another CR will probably be required by November 18… and a bitter fight can be anticipated.

On November 23 the so-called super committee is scheduled to report out on how to slash $1.5 trillion over ten years.  This process was put in place in early August as a compromise to increase the debt ceiling and avert a government shut-down.  If the super committee cannot meet statutory debt reduction targets (and such agreement would be little short of miraculous) a series of triggers will “automatically” reduce expenditures beginning in January 2013.

The mandated reductions — or sequestrations — are designed as fundamentally unacceptable to practically everyone, essentially threatening to pull-the-trigger on a gun pointed at the head of every political clique’s favorite offspring.   Ancient enemies guaranteed peace by exchanging royal heirs as mutual hostages.  This is the modern version.

The original intent of this hostage taking was, I think (hope), to encourage compromise.   Because effective compromise is almost impossible in the current political climate, the actual consequence will be to cause nearly everyone to point toward the prospect of profound disaster. Along the way the 2012 budget is likely to join the hostages.

The triggers threaten national security, social security, medicare, and economic recovery among other fair-haired heirs of our various political interests. (Although in the reading of many budget experts, DHS would not be seriously impacted by pulling-the-triggers.)  The triggers justify an apocalyptic vision of what will happen if the other side wins in November 2012 (whichever other). Only a clear victory by the righteous (whichever righteous) can save the nation.  Winner takes all.

Yet total victory is unlikely, despite visions of political sugar-plums dancing in the heads of opposing partisans.  Further, given the context, total victory by any particular partisan perspective would only confirm the apocalyptic expectations of the other side, leading to even worse social and political confrontation. (If you haven’t, it is worth reading 1861 for breath-taking analogies to our current circumstance.)

Yesterday was the first day of the Jewish New Year. The ten days between Rosh Hashana (New Years) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are sometimes called the Days of Awe.   It is a time set aside for introspection, repentance, and reconciliation.

One time Rebbe Yissachar Dov of Belz was asked to give an example of true remorse for one’s sins and errors. He explained with the following parable:

During a market day it was raining very hard. Many merchants had gathered at the market with their wares to sell, but as it continued to rain each one decided to pack up and go.

Only one merchant decided to stick it out offering his goods. Soon there were a lot of people around him since he was the only one selling anything. The value of his goods rose higher and higher, but he didn’t want to sell them as he wanted to wait until the price went higher still.

Even though the people were begging him to sell, and offering large amounts of money he still held his own and said he would wait until the price would get even higher.

Suddenly the rain stopped and the sun came out. In a short time all the other merchants came to the marketplace. Then the stubborn merchant saw the foolishness of his actions as the prices dropped precipitously in a few minutes. His heart was full of remorse for not selling his goods when he could have gotten for them a high price.

The Rebbe offered, “Remorse like that is what one should have in his heart when one wants to do repentance and return (t’shuva) regarding many sins.” (Teachings of the Rebbe of Belz)

When we seek to maximize our own interest without regard for the interests of others we undermine both ourselves and our whole community.  This is true whatever our interest: commercial, political, spiritual…  Remorse is appropriate, so is learning and reconciliation.

Some meaningful expressions of remorse, learning and reconciliation by next Friday (Yom Kippur) would be truly awe inspiring.

On Wednesday, November 7, 2012 we will — almost certainly — need to talk with each other, listen to each other, respect each other, and adapt to each other if we are going to move forward together as a nation.  If we are unable to do this today, it will be even more difficult 403 days from now.

Increasingly homeland security gives priority to engaging the whole community in collaborative efforts to enhance resilience.  These broader issues are relevant to our work… and vice-versa.

August 24, 2011

Calling the Capitol

A seismograph near Middleton Place showed a sudden burst of activity just before 2 p.m. (see hours at left of graph).

More than a few people in the public safety and homeland security sectors are hoping yesterday afternoon’s shallow M5.8 earthquake shook some sense into politicians, bureaucrats and Congressional staffers. The temblor, the largest recorded in the national capitol region in more than a century, caused a large-scale disruption of cellular telephone service when it struck shortly before 2:00 PM EDT. Cellular operators attributed the failure to overloads rather than physical damage to system components. Landline services, including the copper-wire-based public switched telephone network, remained operational and under-utilized.

The growing dependence of Americans on cellular telephone services, especially the extent to which reliance on these devices has displaced older technologies, has raised concerns among regulators and the regulated alike. Phone companies are now having trouble keeping up with the increasing capabilities of the devices we crave. Despite our seemingly elastic appetites for each new generation of wireless technology, our willingness to pay for the infrastructure to support these nifty services has remained relatively constrained. Meanwhile, pressure on companies to improve profitability in an atmosphere of constrained revenues and stiff competition have limited infrastructure spending to such an extent that one wonders whether the price and performance curves will ever be reconciled, even if the economic recovery takes hold.

This harsh reality has fueled pressure from the public safety industry on regulators and legislators to designate and release a large chunk of radio-frequency spectrum known as D-Block for development of a national broadband public safety network. It didn’t take long for advocates of this move to capitalize on the quake to underscore their concerns about the status quo and renew calls for immediate action on the D-Block petition.

You might wonder why overloaded cellular networks are much of a concern to public safety agencies. After all, don’t they have their own radio frequencies already anyway? We’ve invested lots of federal, state, local and tribal government money in the decade since 9/11 improving interoperable communications capabilities. Hasn’t this paid off somehow?

Well, Virginia, thanks for asking. Yes, public safety does have a lot of spectrum and some pretty fancy equipment. This equipment and the slices of spectrum already allocated do a pretty good job of relaying voice communications and a small amount of data. But because of the limitations of these proprietary technologies and the institutional inertia of the agencies who own and operate it, police, fire-rescue and EMS services rely pretty heavily on the same cellular services the rest of us do for high-speed, broadband data applications and services. And like the rest of us, they often use cellular telephones when they only need to relay a message to a single person. That means when we lose cellular service they do too.

But wait a minute, don’t public safety officials have priority access to cellular telephone services? Clever girl, Virginia. Yes, they do. But that doesn’t help much when the number of priority calls alone are sufficient to swamp the system. Imagine, if you will, how many people in Washington, D.C. and along the eastern seaboard consider their need to communicate with someone right this second more important than anyone else’s. Besides not every public safety agency has configured its equipment and paid the fees necessary to obtain this sort of priority access.

Cellular network operators say most services returned to normal within about 20 minutes of the earthquake. One suspects that the decision to release many (so-called) non-essential government workers early was predicated at least in part on a desire to alleviate further strain on the region’s already overburdened systems and services. At the same time, one has to wonder what this cost both in terms of lost productivity and public image.

By most accounts, the earthquake, despite its surprising intensity and duration, caused relatively little physical damage. But the fiscal damage of the decisions yet to come remains to be seen.

August 5, 2011

The debt deal and the “security category”

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS — by Philip J. Palin on August 5, 2011

The Budget Control Act of 2011 — aka the debt ceiling deal — formalizes a set of national security relationships seldom identified for common treatment.  According to the Act:

The term ‘security category’ includes discretionary appropriations associated with agency budgets for the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the intelligence community management account (95–0401–0–1–054), and all budget accounts in budget function 150 (international affairs).

One other category — non-security — is created by the Act.

The statutory language is not entirely clear to me, in fact it is very obscure to me.  But in conversation with others I understand that by setting certain budget limitations on discretionary spending the debt deal is designed to encourage real horse trading on crafting a more reasonable budget.

For example, the debt deal says that unless other budget targets are achieved, discretionary spending shall be capped as follows:

With respect to fiscal year 2012- ‘‘(A) for the security category, $684,000,000,000 in new budget authority; and (B) for the nonsecurity category, $359,000,000,000 in new budget authority; ‘‘(2) with respect to fiscal year 2013— ‘‘(A) for the security category,  $686,000,000,000 in new budget authority; and  ‘‘(B) for the nonsecurity category, $361,000,000,000 in new budget authority;

These and other limitations on each of the two categories extended over the next ten years are so draconian that partisans of each category will supposedly be motivated to make other smarter and more specific cuts or authorize revenue increases in order to avoid the caps in the debt deal.

Whether or not mutual hostage taking ought be quite so central to crafting the federal budget is a topic for another day and, probably, a different blog.

Appropriate to the purposes of HLSWatch are the implications of Homeland Security sharing the same farrowing shed as defense, intelligence, the National Nuclear Security Administration, foreign affairs, and veterans.

A farrowing shed is where the mother sow gives birth and initially cares for her pig litter (I expose my rural Illinois origins).  In making this analogy I am not trying to say anything about pork-barrel politics.  Rather, I am suggesting a significant shift in the favored place of Homeland Security in the overall appropriations process.

For the last decade even when other appropriations were long-delayed, Homeland Security shared with Defense a place of honor at the top of the funding process.  Instead of a pig litter, in prior years HS might have been compared to a fine mare, named National Security, giving birth to twins. Certainly HS is much smaller than the first-born Pentagon, but HS has been given lots of attention precisely because of its comparative weakness.

Now DHS and its components are just one of many national security piglets, and arguably the runt of the litter.

While homeland security has usually not needed to compete head-to-head over funding with other national security players, it does regularly compete over policy attention, political priorities, and prestige.  It does not often win if the others play hard.

After a decade of war — and casualties — it is difficult to imagine significant cuts to the Department of Veterans Affairs and easy to imagine moral and pragmatic cause for increases.  For example, VA benefits are specifically protected in the debt deal.

Just given what is happening with nuclear proliferation — and the comparatively small size of its budget — the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration is unlikely to be seen as a candidate for meaningful budget-cutting.  Like a miniature albino pig, NNSA is more likely to be prized than paupered.

Foreign aid is a perpetual target, but it only totals $30 billion. Eliminate it and the long-term debt will barely twitch. The entire State Department annual operating budget is only a bit more than $14 billion.

Defense is and will remain the big boy of the lot.  The intelligence community is increasingly yoked to Defense.  The full intelligence budget — military and civilian — is mostly classified and tough to track, much less cut.

Within this “security category” the battle over priorities — financial and otherwise — will mostly be between the military, the diplomats, the spies, and the homeland security guys-and-gals.  The other three have more history, stronger political, commercial, and academic networks, more intellectual capital, often dress better — though Coast Guard uniforms are stylish — and are usually much more effective exercising influence.  Consider yesterday’s preemptive strike by Secretary Panetta and Admiral Mullen.

The real budget battle will be over Medicare cuts and revenue increases.  What will the security category need to symbolically and substantively contribute to this fight?  Certainly Defense will give the most.  But whatever is required of the entire litter, the runt is likely to contribute proportionally more.

August 3, 2011

Useless or Faceless?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on August 3, 2011

John Quincy Adams is often quoted as having said, “One useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a Congress.” Another unnamed sage quipped, “Congress is continually appointing fact-finding committees, when what we really need are some fact-facing committees.” This past month’s acrimonious debt debates have done nothing to disprove either theorem despite their success in passing legislation to avert the nation’s first-ever default on its public debt.

It’s easy to see the tortured process of the past month and the polarized politics propelling the participants as a product of a deeply ambivalent body politic. But that would be too convenient and untrue to boot.

As Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation explained in a recent article, surveys indicate that the public at-large is much more reasonable and responsible than its representatives in Congress. Clear majorities of self-identified Republicans supported higher taxes and fewer spending cuts than those adopted yesterday. Likewise, a substantial proportion of self-identified Democrats were more than willing to amend entitlement eligibility criteria and make broader and deeper cuts to prevent default.

Politicians that pay too much attention to the polls are often derided by their rivals, who like to allege that this tendency suggests a lack of leadership ability closely akin to a moral failing. Direct democracy has its proponents, but few of even the most ardent advocates of participatory democracy would argue that it serves as either an efficient or effective way of making complex and critical decisions like those surrounding the federal budget and deficits. But how much messier would it really be than what we have all just witnessed?

The dynamics of group decision-making intrigue me. In his 2005 bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki, addressed the strengths and weaknesses of group decision-making to three particular kinds of problems:

  • Cognition problems, which require decision makers to infer unknowns from known conditions;
  • Coordination problems, which require decision-makers to achieve efficient outcomes under uncertain, competitive conditions; and
  • Cooperation problems, which involve getting “self-interested, distrustful people to work together, even when narrow self-interest would seem to dictate that no individual should take part.”

I think it’s self-explanatory which type of problem deficit-cutting most closely resembles. Surowiecki argued that effective group decision-making in all of these situations depends on three conditions: 1) diversity, 2) independence, and 3) (a particular kind of) decentralization. Congress fails on all three counts, and the process proposed in the legislation for goading our representatives into action does little if anything to improve this sorry situation.

Surowiecki notes that diversity and independence matter — particularly when solving cognition problems — “because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” Decentralization on the other hand mediates the influence of disagreement and conflict because “Groups benefit from members talking to and learning from each other, but too much communication, paradoxically, can actually make the group as a whole less intelligent.”

Balancing the three decision-making prerequisites is clearly a challenging endeavor, and sometimes more difficult than the problem itself. As a result, some of the best decision-making methods use mechanisms like market-pricing and intelligent voting systems to aggregate individual judgments to produce more accurate representations of the collective mind than would otherwise emerge from direct communication among participants.

These observations may or may not suggest the need for Constitutional or procedural reforms to make Congress function more efficiently and effectively when dealing with such contentious issues. But they should inform our assessment of what it takes to improve the performance of programs and activities affected by the looming budget cuts resulting from yesterday’s Grand and Smelly Compromise.

How might we engage the wisdom of crowds to improve the performance of homeland security and domestic intelligence operations? What applications of these or related concepts are already bearing fruit?

July 27, 2011

Sanity, Substance

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Mark Chubb on July 27, 2011

This past weekend, the world witnessed three very different events in three places very distant from one another that produced three very different public responses. Each has something to tell us.

In the first instance, Norwegians’ demonstrated that no matter how powerful the pull of emotion, humans are capable of engaging the most senseless acts of violence in very sensible ways. On the other side of the planet, New Zealanders greeted an icy blast of Antarctic weather that dumped 30cm of snow on their tattered landscape with sighs not screams. “The icing on the quake,” was greeted with as much relief as resignation despite the disruption it caused. Meanwhile, back here in the United States, our leaders in Washington demonstrated that neither the tug of emotion nor the power of reason is strong enough to dislodge our leaders and their supporters from the entrenched positions fueling their partisan brinksmanship.

Norwegian leaders and citizens alike made it clear that Anders Behring Breivik’s rampage will not undermine their continued commitment to maintaining an inclusive, tolerant society guided by respect for human dignity and the rule of law. No one has minimized the challenges facing societies like Norway’s that struggle to embrace multiculturalism on a continent organized around and indeed defined by national distinctions rather than assimilation. If anything, the massacre has rekindled interest in redoubling efforts to accommodate cultural differences without sacrificing quality of life or equal protection of the law.

In Christchurch, people have learned repeatedly to find pleasure in the simplest things. In other cities, including their own in days past, a snowstorm of this magnitude would have been greeted very differently. People would have wondered whether the inability of municipal authorities to keep transportation and economic activities going were some dark sign of their inability to do anything. People have come to expect both more and less of those in government in the after last September’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake and more than 7,300 aftershocks left their city in ruins. They expect more information, more involvement and more empathy from government officials. At the same time, they are more forgiving of errors, uncertainty, and delays, especially when they see public officials confronting many of the same personal and professional challenges they themselves must face.

Our leaders in Washington, however, seem capable of doing little more than what suits their own peculiar political interests. Not long ago a political impasse like the present one would have been resolved by recourse to party loyalty and party discipline. These distinctions pale in comparison to the ideological differences driving the present debate (or lack thereof). Rather than accepting and addressing the urgency of the present situation, both sides seem more committed to leveraging it for ends that enhance their future prospects at the polls at the expense of someone else’s. The principles of inclusiveness, equity, and shared sacrifice have no more to do with either side’s proposals than compromise or collaboration have to do with the way they have engaged the problem or one another.

In Norway, a country that enjoys one of Europe’s highest standards of living, lowest unemployment rates, and strongest social safety nets, the disturbing actions of an individual or small group of extremists in their society have opened both eyes and minds to the need to work harder. In New Zealand, a disruptive snow storm demonstrated that even the most urgent, necessary, and difficult work can wait when conditions require it. The peaceful beauty of the snow can even serve as a brief respite and reminder to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, especially the company of one another.

This leaves me wondering, what will it take to not just get the attention of our leaders and a broad cross-section of American society, but to get then to engage the dilemmas facing our country without resorting to simplistic, self-serving soundbites? What will it take to restore sanity and substance to our politics?

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