Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 18, 2015

“Such unpredictability has happened not in spite of technological progress, but because of it.”

Filed under: Organizational Issues — by Christopher Bellavita on May 18, 2015

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3 in Stanley McChrystal, et al.’s new book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.  The book is well worth reading if you’re interested in exploring ways of working and leading within a complex environment – like homeland security. 

“The year is 1882. Halfway around the world from [Frederick] Taylor and his factories, the Ottoman governor of Damascus has decided to implement major educational reforms. Tarek, a poor, pious Muslim who resents the reforms, goes down to the town square, gets on a soapbox, and begins to agitate against the government.

“Do the authorities need to worry about him? Perhaps. In all likelihood, the Ottoman regime knows almost nothing about him personally because he is not well connected or aligned with any of their institutional enemies. But even without knowledge about Tarek as an individual, the regime can anticipate that the number of people who might turn out to see him preach is small— only people who are within daily communication and traveling radius of his soapbox will be aware of his protest. Moreover, the town square lies within government control. If things get out of hand, they can shut down the operation almost instantly. Maybe they will arrest him, or maybe they will let him say his piece and leave. Either way, they can predict with some accuracy that he does not represent a threat to the state.

“Fast-forward to 2010 and Tarek is standing on the street in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. He is shouting at the top of his lungs about local police corruption. With access to his data trail, twenty-first-century Tunisian authorities may know a lot about Tarek: where he shops, what he likes to buy, what Web sites he visits at the Internet café, who his Facebook friends are, what kind of religious and political beliefs he holds. With simple study and a basic computer, they can come to far more refined conclusions about him than the Ottoman governor in 1882 could have. But in 2010 the range of outcomes that this Tarek can generate is far greater than his government can anticipate, because he lives in a vastly more complex world.

“The first Tarek is fictional. The second is Tunisian fruit vendor Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, and when he douses himself with gasoline and self-immolates, events spiral out of control at breakneck speed: A crowd protests his death, and his cousin records the scene on his iPhone. Videos appear on YouTube within two days, along with a picture of Tarek, aflame and dying. More protests erupt. Videos of those protests wind up on Facebook. Arabs everywhere see their Tunisian brethren in the streets. Not only Al Jazeera, but The New York Times and The Guardian make trips to the small town of Sidi Bouzid. Within three months, the thirty-year reign of Hosni Mubarak is brought to an end some 1,400 miles away in Cairo, Muammar Gaddafi starts losing control of Libya after four decades in power, and Syria begins its descent into intractable civil war.

“Despite having more data about Arab societies— and about individuals like Tarek— than at any time in history, no government, search engine, or social media platform foresaw Tarek’s self-immolation or the impact it would have.

“The two Tareks illustrate the contradiction between the tremendous technological progress witnessed during the past century, and our seemingly diminished ability to know what will happen next. Though we know far more about everything in it, the world has in many respects become less predictable. Such unpredictability has happened not in spite of technological progress, but because of it. The technological developments of recent decades are of a fundamentally different variety from those of Taylor’s era. While we might think that our increased ability to track, measure, and communicate with people like Tarek would improve our precise “clockwork universe” management, the reality is the opposite: these changes produce a radically different climate— one of unpredictable complexity— that stymies organizations based on Taylorist efficiency.

“It is because of these changes that the [US military’s Joint Special Operations] Task Force’s “awesome machine,” excellent by all twentieth-century metrics, was failing. Understanding specifically what had changed, why it reduced predictability, and how that impacted management would prove critical to solving our problem. And we weren’t alone. In our later analyses, we found that phenomena we witnessed on the ground in Iraq had been observed in a wide variety of domains, from agronomy to economics.”


CHAPTER 1: Sons of Proteus
CHAPTER 2: Clockwork
CHAPTER 3: From Complicated to Complex
CHAPTER 4: Doing the Right Thing

CHAPTER 5: From Command to Team
CHAPTER 6: Team of Teams

CHAPTER 7: Seeing the System
CHAPTER 8: Brains Out of the Footlocker
CHAPTER 9: Beating the Prisoner’s Dilemma

CHAPTER 10: Hands Off
CHAPTER 11: Leading Like a Gardener

CHAPTER 12: Symmetries


August 20, 2014

William Cumming on emergency management as an organizational process in governance

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Organizational Issues,Resilience — by Arnold Bogis on August 20, 2014

Long time (perhaps the longest?) HLSWatch commentator William Cumming has a guest blog up on Eric Holdeman’s Disaster Zone blog. And he doesn’t nibble around the edges:

Increasingly, I am supportive of the notion that emergency management is not a contrived subject or profession but in fact underlies much of organizational process that leads to various forms of governance.

I’m not sure if I accept this notion, but it is a big idea. However, I do think his opinion on the use of the military in most other nations for emergency management responsibilities is an important insight.

Well in my opinion, emergency management is the worst form of organizational response to crisis management and resilience (that includes elements of preparedness, planning, prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery) except all others. What alternative choices are there?

One big one is a military command and control system that actually can prevent effective collaboration and cooperation, whether among individuals, NGOs, governments or other spontaneously developing post-disaster organizations. Since more than 90 percent of the nation-states have vested their EM function in their military, organizationally designed to inflict maximum organized violence on some other group or nation-state, I find that this approach is largely vested in a leadership’s desire for control and resurrecting the status quo ante. These factors are not absent from emergency management but seem more likely not to dominate when the civil sector is dominate.

He goes on to provide five building blocks for emergency management going forward.  Please see Holdeman’s blog for the full text as it is well worth your time to read. It is also worth pointing out here his summary:

In summary, perhaps the system of emergency management must promote collaboration and cooperation so that the system is supportive of the best resilience. And while individual brilliance will from time to time appear and needs to be utilized, systems and processes must reflect the collective wisdom of those involved with the emergency management process in any crisis or disaster.

What I like here is the focus on process and system.  Often, at least it seems to me, leadership development and education is held up as the holy grail of homeland security development.  I believe Bill is pointing out that while when you get exceptional, or even adequate, leadership good things follow but the most important thing is to develop an overall system within which best practices are developed, shared, and implemented.

February 13, 2014

NSS becomes NSC (again) and why it matters to HS and homeland security

Filed under: Homeland Defense,Organizational Issues,State and Local HLS — by Philip J. Palin on February 13, 2014

From the White House website, February 10, 2014:


– – – – – – –


By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, and in order to reflect my decision to change the name of the National Security Staff to the National Security Council staff, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Name Change. All references to the National Security Staff or Homeland Security Council Staff in any Executive Order or Presidential directive shall be understood to refer to the staff of the National Security Council…

And it continues briefly bureaucratic.  See it all here if you wish.


Monday’s Executive Order undoes the never-really-accepted early administration decision to call the newly combined NSC staff and HSC (Homeland Security Council) staff the National Security Staff.

This NSS fig leaf was mostly an awkward reminder of a brief dalliance with a sort of security separate from the defense-foreign policy-intelligence community condominium.  Rather as if someone from the Upper East Side had married into a family with a double-wide.

Finally we can put that foolishness aside.  Rather than silly fig-leafs, the virility and fertility of the National Security state can be proudly displayed.  The executive order merely confirming continuing practice and the strong preference of staffers.


As someone who abides in that homeland security double-wide all I can really say is that the national security types are smart, capable, and know how to play the policy and power game better than me.  They are tougher than I am and much better networked.  They won this battle — well, for them barely a skirmish — hands-down.  If they had the time or inclination to notice, I would offer my hand in congratulation.

This may strike some as passive-aggressive.  I hope instead it reflects a balance of realism and pride that persists even in losing an important contest.

I still believe what I told the House Homeland Security Committee back in April 2009.  Here’s an excerpt of my testimony:

For more than fifty years, the National Security Council has ably served the Commander-in-Chief. Every element of the NSC’s organizational DNA reflects the responsibilities and power of the Commander-in-Chief. In foreign and defense policy –and the intelligence agencies supporting foreign and defense policy – the President’s authority is preeminent. The NSC has been a creature of that preeminence. Even with the legal, budgetary, and direct command-and-control authority of the President, the NSC can have difficulty doing what is needed to coordinate defense, foreign affairs, and intelligence policy. But after fifty years there is an authoritative NSC institutional ethos that well serves the President and the nation.

This same ethos will often be counter-productive in solving Homeland Security problems… For the purposes of domestic counter-terrorism and prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery the authority of the Commander-in-Chief is not what matters. Most of the Governors will not respond positively to a command and control approach.  Neither will the Adjutants General, nor County Sheriffs, nor most Mayors, nor police chiefs, nor emergency managers, and then there is the private sector that actually owns most of our critical infrastructure. These are partners who must be cultivated.

Some have argued that more of a command-and-control culture is needed to motivate sufficient attention to domestic counterterrorism. It is true that many local jurisdictions across the United States do not give sufficient priority to counterterrorism. But we cannot command them to do otherwise. We cannot even pay them enough to do otherwise. If we are serious about preventing latter day Beslans or Mumbais – or worse, we must do the hard work of communicating, cooperating, building relationships, developing trust, and engaging together in meaningful local and regional risk analysis. Only when state and local authorities are ready – of their own volition – to invest time, energy, and their own dollars into consistent counterterrorism work will we be closer to real defense-in-depth regarding the terrorist threat.

Local authorities are – not unreasonably – actively engaged with disasters that threaten with some regularity: floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes… each place and each region is different. They are not inclined to give sufficient attention to threats that are outside the pattern. They tend to undervalue a whole continuum of catastrophic possibilities: intentional, accidental, and natural. Given limited financial and human resources this tendency is understandable. Given recent financial extremities the tendency has been exacerbated.

The Federal government can and should play a role in helping ensure reasonable local attention to catastrophic possibilities – including terrorism. The federal government can play this role through consulting, educating, training, making grants, and through a variety of other mechanisms. When the federal government engages state and local authorities –and private sector — as peers and fellow professionals, the response will usually be productive. Ordering or even paying state and local professionals to do something they don’t believe in tends to produce very creative avoidance behavior.

These practical issues reflect in a wonderful way our constitutional system. We are dramatically reminded that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, not the nation. We are forced to recall that we are – even now – a federal union of sovereign states… and a robust society of free peoples who do not salute any master.

Re-reading this testimony five years later I am a bit embarrassed by the prose, but the experience of these years have further reinforced my judgment regarding the substance.

The contentious issue at hand is not a matter of intention or capability, but culture. I love the Upper East Side. I spend all the time I can at the Met, Guggenheim, elsewhere near-by. And at my home in the mountains our nearest neighbor does, indeed, live in a double-wide. Each of these worlds is real. Each is vitally important to our common future. Each tends to disdain each and in the process our shared strength is diminished.

October 24, 2013

An Open Letter to Jeh Johnson

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Organizational Issues,Resilience,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on October 24, 2013

October 24, 2013

Mr. Jeh Johnson, Esq.
Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP
1285 Avenue of the Americas
New York, New York

Dear Mr. Johnson:

There are some professional advancements that prompt more sympathy than celebration. I will not congratulate you on your recent nomination as secretary of homeland security. But I certainly wish you well.

Your nomination prompted reading again your remarks of last November before the Oxford Union. I had forgotten your closing reference to Martin Luther King’s November, 1957 sermon on “Loving your enemies.”   It is a great sermon with profound implications for counter-terrorism.

Dr. King’s comments are equally well-suited for aspects of the homeland security mission at some remove from counter-terrorism. Early in the sermon, he asked and answered, “How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this: In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self.”

It is this aspect of love that best differentiates your new homeland security role from your long-time role in national security.

You have considerable experience in the Department of Defense. It is entirely appropriate that the Pentagon and military services be primarily concerned with external threats.  Your Oxford Union address communicates this threat-focus quite effectively. Homeland security certainly needs to be aware of external threats, but this is not its primary domain.

There are also internal threats. I would argue these are primarily the object of local, state, tribal, and federal systems of justice.  Homeland security has a collaborative and constructive role to contribute here, but — once again — this is not its primary domain.

The differentiated role of homeland security is to systematically and thoughtfully engage our vulnerabilities. Just as Dr. King advocated, homeland security begins by analyzing self, as expressed in neighborhoods and networks spanning the nation. There are threats. There are enemies. But that is not where we should begin.

We best begin by acknowledging our failures, short-comings, and weakness. We begin by carefully examining our most important relationships.  We even take a critical look at our greatest strengths, considering how and where they might lead us astray. We begin by uplifting ourselves, especially our ability to love.

Because you are familiar with Dr. King’s rigorous definition of love more explanation is not needed. But clearly it is difficult for a speech, strategy, or testimony to give priority to love.  Too many will not take you seriously. Fortunately the wonk’s code-word for the kind of love advocated by Dr. King is resilience: much easier to reference than love (but just about as complicated).

At Oxford you mentioned the moral conundrum a career in national security had presented you.  I hope your time in homeland security may offer creative resolution… for all of us.

Yours in resilience,

Philip J. Palin

July 31, 2012

If Thad Allen ran DHS

Filed under: Organizational Issues — by Christopher Bellavita on July 31, 2012

The homeland security enterprise got a glimpse of what DHS might look like if Thad Allen becomes the Secretary of Homeland Security.

He testified a few weeks ago at a senate hearing about “The Evolution of the Homeland Security Department’s Roles and Missions.”

Here’s some of what he had to say in his written statement.


Allen reminded people how quickly DHS got started 10 years ago. The perception of urgency in 2002 meant “little time was available for deliberate planning and thoughtful consideration of available alternatives” for establishing the Department.

The consequence of “fire before aiming?”

Basic mission support functions of the department such as financial accounting, human resource management, real property management, information resource management, procurement, and logistics were retained largely at the component level in legacy systems that varied widely. Funding for those functions was retained at the component level as well. In those cases where new entities were created (i.e. Departmental level management and operations, the Under Secretary for Science and Technology, the Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office) support systems had to be created rapidly to meet immediate demands of mission execution. Finally, components and departmental offices that did not preexist the legislation were located in available space around the Washington DC area and the Secretary and number of new functions were located at the Nebraska Avenue Complex in Northwest Washington.

The result was an organizational mess.

According to Allen,

Many of these issues persist today, ten years later. Despite several attempts to centralize and consolidate functions …, most support functions remain located in departmental components and the funding to support those functions remains in their appropriations. Because of dissimilarities between appropriations structures of components transferred from legacy departments there is a lack of uniformity, comparability, and transparency in budget presentations across the department. As a result it is difficult to clearly differentiate, for example, between personnel costs, operations and maintenance costs, information technology costs, and capital investment….”

Allen outlines other structural and process problems that have “severely constrained the ability [of] the Department [to] mature as an enterprise.”

What to do about it?

In the May/June issue of Public Administration Review (subscription required), Allen wrote an article called “Confronting Complexity and Leading Unity of Effort.”  The title summarizes the approach he’d take to remedy the structural disarray that is DHS.

I proposed that the major emerging challenge of public administration and governing is the increased level of complexity we confront in mission operations, execution of government programs, and managing non-routine and crisis events. Driving this complexity are rapid changes in technology, the emergence of global community, and the ever-expanding human-built environment that intersects with the natural environment in new more extreme ways.

So far nothing very new here. Just another statement from someone stuck in what Sebastian Gorka, Michael J. Gallagher, and Joshua A. Geltzer call the Complexity Trap [one of the few articles I’ve found that challenges the assumption almost everything interesting is complex.]

Allen moves away in his testimony from the theoretical and suggests what his complexity analysis could mean for DHS: as a unit of analysis, DHS may be too small.

No single department, agency, or bureau has the authorizing legislation, appropriation, capability, competency or capacity to address complexity alone. The result is that most government programs or services are “co-produced” by multiple agencies. Many involve the private/non-governmental sector, and, in some cases, international partners. Collaboration, cooperation, the ability to build networks, and partner are emerging as critical organizational and leadership skills. Homeland Security is a complex “system of systems” that interrelates and interacts with virtually every department of government at all levels and the private sector as well. It is integral to the larger national security system. We need the capabilities, capacities and competency to create unity of effort within the Department and across the homeland security enterprise.

Allen is unwilling to wait for complexity and the magic of emergence to produce unity of effort in the system of systems that is the homeland security. He wants to create unity of effort. He’s shifting from a managerial toward a leadership perspective.

What is Allen’s vision for DHS?

As we look forward to the next decade I would propose we consider two basic simple concepts: Mission execution and mission support. Mission execution is deciding what [you do] and how to do it. Mission support enables mission execution.

For the mission execution piece of the vision, Allen wants to take another look (through the next QHSR) at what DHS is responsible for.

[T]here should be a baseline assessment of the current legal authorities, regulatory responsibilities, treaty obligations, and current policy direction (i.e. HSPD/NSPD). I do not believe there has been sufficient visibility provided on the broad spectrum of authorities and responsibilities that moved to the department with the components in 2003….

Once that’s done, he wants to look at how homeland security missions still worth pursuing are carried out, and “without regard to current stove piped component activities.”

Using borders as an example, Allen writes

…envision the border as an aggregation of functions across physical and virtual domains instead of the isolated and separate authorities, jurisdictions, capabilities, and competencies of individual components.

Resilience also would get a new, expanded look:

Instead of focusing on “insuring resiliency to disasters” we should focus on the creation and sustainment of national resiliency that is informed by the collective threat/risks presented by both the natural and human built environments. The latter is a more expansive concept than “infrastructure” and the overall concept subsumes the term “disaster” into [the] larger problem set that we will face. This strategic approach would allow integration of activities and synergies between activities that are currently stove piped within FEMA, NPPD, and other components. It also allows cyber security to be seen as activity that touches virtually every player in the homeland security enterprise.”

Allen succinctly illustrates the mission support element of his DHS vision this way:

…[W]hen you go to work … every day you [do] one of two things: you either execute the mission or you support the mission…. [If] you cannot explain which one of these jobs you are doing, then we have done one of two things wrong … we haven’t explained your job properly or we don’t need your job.

How to accomplish the vision Allen sets out?

… I see three possible ways forward. The desirable course of action would be build the trust and transparency necessary for the Department and components to [collectively] agree to rationalize the mission support structure and come to agreements on shared services. The existing barriers are considerable but the first principals of mission execution apply here as well … unambiguous, clearly communicated strategic intent and unity of effort supported by transparency and exploitation of information. A less palatable course of action is top down directed action that is enforced through the budget process. The least desirable course of action is externally mandated change.

I think what that paragraph says to the people in DHS is “You’ve been building this agency for a decade. Get your act together internally and fix what you know is not working. If you don’t do it on your own, you will be directed to do it either through the budget or through law.”

I don’t believe the last two options can work. They depend on control, and I think the evidence — including DHS’s first decade — is very clear: deliberate control is not a property of a complex social system, like homeland security.

The first option might work. But it’s up to the men and women inside DHS and the enterprise to make it work. That takes leadership. Not leaders.

May 16, 2012

See No Evil? Then Just Do It

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Private Sector — by Mark Chubb on May 16, 2012

It’s been awhile since I have managed to post something. The last wholehearted attempt I made was a reflection on May Day observances that I never finished. For some reason or another I could never come to a conclusion to that piece that really satisfied me. At least not in the sense that I was getting to the heart of what I was watching on the news and in the streets, especially here in Seattle. As a result, it sits mouldering in my queue still waiting for rewrite or deletion.

Somehow, though, a few of the themes I struggled with just a couple of weeks ago came into sharper focus for me this week in the form of two articles I read. The first described the effects of growing income inequality on individual mortality. Put simply, those who earn the least can not only expect to live shorter lives, but they can also expect their longevity to diminish as the length or the depth of the gap widens between their earnings and those at the top. The article cites other studies’ speculation as to the causes of income inequality-related mortality while noting that the academic research cited has reached no firm conclusion about specific causes, especially over the short-term. At the same time, the study provides compelling evidence of the cumulative effect of income inequality on health.

The second article suggested that crime really does pay. Or rather that unethical behavior or at the very least less-than-ethical behavior has its rewards. The Harvard Business Review item noted a recent study that displayed significant gaps between the earnings of those men who self-reported improvements in ethical awareness and subsequent ethical conduct as a result of exposure to ethical principles and practices in their post-graduate management curricula. (Sorry, no word on how the women did. Let’s just hope it was considerably better than the boys.) Sadly, but probably not too surprisingly, those who earned the most reported little awareness of or influence from exposure to ethics while earning their MBAs.

These two items got me reflecting anew on a third item that aired on May 1. NPR’s Planet Money Team produced a truly exceptional segment entitled Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things. This piece examined the story of Toby Groves, a convicted mortgage fraudster who convinced colleagues to conspire with him to create a ghost mortgage, a very real loan for an utterly fictitious property, to cover mismanagement of his business.

In the simplest terms, Toby and his colleagues justified their actions by framing the problem in two very simple but compelling ways. First, instead of seeing their actions as unethical, which they openly acknowledged they were, they reframed the decision as one of business necessity. They supported this framing in a second but equally compelling way by seeing their actions as a personal favor for a trusted friend and valued colleague. In other words, they saw Toby as someone they liked and enjoyed working with who now needed a small favor from them as opposed to the illegal and craven actions of a desperate man at his wits’ end. In short, their decisions to be helpful were aided by the notion that Toby Groves was a business associate, his business was at risk due to financial decisions they all make, and the actions he requested of them (which he openly acknowledged could get them all in heaps of trouble) required little effort on their part and were actions in which they were routinely engaged as part of their normal and legitimate business practices. Clearly, the road to hell — and prison — is paved with good intentions.

If the NPR story had any shortcomings, it was in the lack of resolution I felt from the reforms they suggested might arise to combat the problem of inappropriate cognitive framing of ethical dilemmas in the business environment. How, I wondered, might it help the situation to remind people on the forms they are signing that lying or misrepresentation are unethical or illegal? Don’t they know this already? And who reads the fine print anyway? Sure, it might help to change auditors frequently to keep them from becoming too cosy with those they oversee. But don’t we want auditors to be both rational and fair? Does this not suggest a need for some sort of empathy? How much then is too much?

Clearly, the dilemmas we face are becoming more complex just as they problems that give rise to them become more complicated and even convoluted. The credit crunch that led to the lingering economic stagnation we still endure, the ideological and political excesses of violent extremists here and abroad, and the inability to reconcile political differences for the common good not only reflect certain states of mind but also provoke powerful emotions in us that arise largely from our own cognitive biases. The challenge then is not to oversimplify any of these issues but to see them for what they are: Situations that require us to apply many different frames to achieve not only the proper resolution but sufficient perspective to interpret correctly what sits before our eyes.

We can look upon the health effects of income inequality as the sad but unintended consequences of an otherwise salutary economic system or an injustice that demands redress. We can reward unethical conduct in the workplace and accept unequal rewards for those who look after themselves before others or we can hold one another to account for what each of us thinks, says and does. If it’s true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then it’s also worth noting that there’s more than one way to skin a cat and we should try them all rather than looking for the easy way out.

March 19, 2012

Being sent to the minors can be a good thing – even in homeland security

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Organizational Issues — by Arnold Bogis on March 19, 2012

As most fans of baseball could tell you, Washington Nationals prospect Bryce Harper is a potential star in the making.  He took his GED to leave high school early and enrolled with a junior college to jump start his professional baseball career.  At the age of 16 he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  In 2010 he was picked first in the baseball draft by the Nationals, switching positions from catcher to right field to speed his arrival to the major leagues.  Going into this year’s spring training, one of the most discussed story lines was whether he would be sent back down to the minor leagues to begin the season or break camp with the Nationals.  The baseball-obsessed community (of which I count myself a member) now has an answer:

The Nationals optioned 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper to Class AAA Syracuse, ending his longshot pursuit to make the opening day roster. Harper will play mostly center field at Syracuse, with some right mixed in, and the Nationals see him as a center fielder when he reaches the majors this season. The position represents a shift for the Nationals, who have been trying to solve a long-standing center field issue.

News that will undoubtedly disappoint a legion of sportswriters (who may only be second to political reporters in regards to trying to stir the pot with stories that stretch credulity). Yet to serious baseball analysts, the idea of promoting such a young player with such great future prospects so soon didn’t make sense.  In essence, the team would be trading a full year in the future when Harper is at the height of his skills for a few months this season when his production is likely only to be marginally better than the expected replacements.  On a cost/value basis, optioning him to the minor leagues for at least a few months makes sense.

If only most homeland security programs could be so analytically managed.  Too often, especially in the years immediately following 9/11, programs and initiatives were approved and funded without serious thought or analysis of details, capabilities, and consequences.

One specific example is the Biowatch Program that aims to quickly detect any pathogens released in a terrorist attack.  Nuclear and biological terrorism were (and remain) big concerns after 9/11 and this program aimed at achieving quick recognition of such an attack that would allow relevant agencies at all levels to begin to respond before the first cases are identified in the emergency room.  The problem has been that the technology never lived up to the promise of the program–filters that required manual replacement each day, added to a delay in getting results from the laboratory tests.

The story is that the situation is improving, but one is left to wonder if a push for prevention above all other potential measures for dealing with the same issue, such as syndromic monitoring and improved communication capabilities between emergency rooms/hospitals and public health officials, could not have provided a better capability at this point for responding to an attack or outbreak of a natural pandemic.

Along the same lines would be many of the difficulties experienced by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) in DHS.  Analysts with deep experience in the issue of nuclear terrorism have long recognized that securing weapons and fissile material is the sweet spot for this particular problem.  Detection technologies artfully deployed can play useful roles in deterrence and occasionally detection of illicitly trafficked material.  However, they are not an answer to this threat by themselves.  While never officially characterized as such, DNDO efforts often seemed as grasping at technological solutions to diplomatic problems.

In other words, the nuclear terrorism problem could only be marginally affected by detection technologies, while efforts at securing fissile material worldwide represents the real game.  But the “away” game is much messier than the “home” game, and less attractive to officials who believe we should only rely on ourselves for our own security.

Each of these examples deserve their own posts (or papers) to properly characterize their pros and cons. What I imagine as a potential lesson learned is that both initiatives deployed equipment and programs before their time.  Early detection of biological and radiological/nuclear materials is a more than constructive goal, and one that seems not too far out in the future (to a point). But the push following 9/11 for these capabilities resulted in deployment of technology that more likely than not damaged the prospect of future use.  Rushing ahead when the technology wasn’t ready will have innoculated local officials in the usefulness of future systems.

Put another way, will systems exhausted of responding to false alarms now react differently in the near future even if improved technology is in place?  Or, in the language of baseball, why waste a few years early in the development of a significant player if it will truly have an impact in the short term future?


February 29, 2012

Mo’ Better Blues

Filed under: Organizational Issues,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on February 29, 2012

The implicit social contract between government and the governed broke down decades ago for many Americans. As the electorate lost confidence in our political and appointed leaders’ empathy, integrity and wisdom, these leaders starting shifting attention from themselves to government employees.

At first, attention focused on whether government was doing things right. Increasingly, people question whether government is doing the right things. Our preoccupation has shifted from worrying that government was trying to do everything to wondering whether it can do anything. Many now question whether we even need government. And a good many more don’t care much one way or the other.

As we have traveled along this continuum from ambivalence to antipathy (and back), the public has rightly questioned both our purpose and our progress.

Many in power have framed public concerns in terms of two cardinal virtues: efficiency and accountability. And too many leaders have erroneously oversimplified this otherwise accurate prescription by translating it into the management mantra: “Do more with less.”

Anyone who has spent any time at all in public service has heard this mantra repeated often enough. Few find it soothing, even fewer find it inspiring.

The challenge for government is not doing more with less. The challenge for government has always been the same: How do we do better.

Any economist will tell you efficiency has nothing to do with less. It’s about minimizing losses, not inflicting them. An efficient economy maximizes aggregate welfare.

Welfare is far more a question of quality than it is a matter of quantity. Once you have enough, more makes less and less difference. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests more actually is less.

Because efficiency focuses on how much better off everyone is collectively, we need accountability to temper its application. Accountability without a sense of responsibility is retributive and irrational. As such, accountability demands equity, which focuses on increasing individual opportunity even if it means generating a little less welfare for all.

The challenge and opportunity for government is not in producing more for less. It is in maximizing aggregate welfare while promoting or advancing individual opportunity.

This is where things ought to get tricky, and does. Opportunity to do what?

The principal ideological and philosophical difference between those who support government and those who oppose it comes down to a difference of opinion about a single, simple expectation: Whether when given any opportunity people will look after themselves or others first.

This distinction should matter just as much to homeland security professionals as it does to politicians and ideological elites. How we operationalize “do better” depends very much on whether we assume individuals look to maximize their own opportunities or those of others.

When better assumes individuals look after themselves first, we have to worry about how far people will go to get what they want. We also have to worry what people will do to get what they need.

If we look after one another first, we have good cause to believe others will look after us. This eliminates or at least minimizes how much concern we should have about what people will do to meet their basic needs.

This still leaves us with the question of what people will do to get what they want. We cannot eliminate this concern for two reasons: 1) even someone with an altruistic orientation should reasonably strive to maximize gain, especially when the benefits are shared widely, and 2) one’s willingness to share will almost invariably vary depending on whether opportunities are expanding or contracting.

When things are good, people are in a better position to share. But to the surprise of many, they often do not.

As we’ve seen during the latest recession and long recovery, people will share even when (or perhaps especially because) it hurts. This may either be due to empathy or an expectation of future reciprocity. But whatever the reason, such benevolence can neither be overlooked nor taken for granted.

What then can we do to encourage renewed optimism in the capacity of government to promote if not do good by doing better? We can start by raising expectations rather than minimizing them. Instead of explaining what government cannot do, we should emphasize what it does better than the market.

To follow this up, we can show it’s not a question of quantity but quality that makes the difference. At a local level, this means less emphasis on response times and staffing and more on what we do to take care of people when they need help and have nowhere else to turn.

Finally, instead of arguing for employment conditions that give public workers more — more pay, more benefits, more security, we should emphasize the important part collective bargaining plays in ensuring equity and quality. Contracts bind both parties, not just management.

If we want to save the public service ethos, we need to start by sacrificing our egos.

November 21, 2011

Shortchanging the future

Filed under: Futures,Organizational Issues — by Arnold Bogis on November 21, 2011

The news out of Washington, DC this week is likely to focus on the failure of the “Supercommittee” to agree on a plan to cut the federal debt. Finger pointing has already begun and there is talk of undermining the automatic triggers put into law that were designed to cajole both sides into cutting a deal lest significant cuts into treasured programs and departments are made in budgets following 2012.

The focus of concern is the Defense Department and not entitlement programs, which troubles me for two reasons: (1) I’ve yet to read a non-biased argument (to give the most public of examples, it does seem to me that the opinion of the current Secretary of Defense is somewhat biased) explaining how even with the planned deep cuts into the Defense budget as called for in the triggers what near or plausibly near-peer competitor will leap ahead of us across any set of security parameters and seriously threaten our national security.  The cuts may drive a strategic reconsideration of our military footprint and national policies around the globe (for deeper thoughts on that subject, I would recommend Harvard professor Steve Walt’s blog: http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/), but I do not see how they lead to North Korea, Iran, or even China coming to represent an existential threat.  That is not to say I favor this outcome–I would much rather see a considered package of defense and entitlement cuts in addition to sensible new revenue–but I am not concerned that it represents the end of U.S. military hegemony.

Oh yeah, (2): while obviously our national security is of utmost importance, the imbalance between publicly displayed concern by politicians about cuts in defense vs. entitlements saddens me at some level.  As a citizen of such a powerful nation I wonder, where is our concern about those among the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens?  How many additional fighter aircraft provide a return on defense investment in comparison to helping to provide for the health of a poor child who can perhaps then realize his or her full potential and contribute to our society? Or the health of those who have spent a lifetime contributing?

While these are general, and somewhat philosophical, observations a more concrete example of shortchanging the future recently occurred in…wait for it…Congress:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wanted to reshuffle its offices to establish a National Climate Service akin to the agency’s National Weather Service. It asked for no new funding to do so.

But in a political climate where talk of the earthly kind of climate can be radioactive, the answer in last week’s budget deal was “no.” Congress barred NOAA from launching what the agency bills as a “one-stop shop” for climate information.

Climate change is a particularly hot topic (pun intended), so this decision is not surprising. That does not make it any less disappointing.

Who would find such an office helpful?  Most likely some latte-drinking hippies:

Farmers are wondering when to plant. Urban planners want to know whether groundwater will stop flowing under subdivisions. Insurance companies need climate data to help them set rates.

The proposal has drawn wide-ranging support. NOAA’s administrator from 2001 to 2008 under Bush, Conrad C. Lautenbacher, urged Congress to approve it this year. So did scientific, weather and industry groups, including the Reinsurance Association of America, which represents huge firms that backstop home, car and life insurance companies.

This matters to homeland security because it impacts a wide range of risk areas:

Franklin W. Nutter, president of the RAA, said insurance companies are increasingly relying on the predictions of a changing future that NOAA provides. “It’s become clear that historic patterns of natural catastrophes — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods — are not good predictors of future risks,” he said. In other words, the future’s looking rougher.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change buttressed that message last week. A report from the world’s top climate science group warned of more extreme weather, more frequent droughts, worse downpours and more dramatic flooding.

Sometimes relatively small investments now can contribute to significant future savings.  Is this an example of preparedness, mitigation, or both?  Whatever box one wishes to throw it in, this decision seems to undercut our resilience.

At the very least, this decision must contribute to cutting government spending, right?

After the deal, which passed Congress last week, a House Appropriations Committee news release implied that Congress had saved $322 million in fiscal year 2012 by nixing the climate service.

The reality: Congress is still giving NOAA those funds for climate research and data delivery. But they’ll be distributed across the agency instead of consolidated under an umbrella climate service. The hundreds of millions in savings trumpeted by the Republican-led Appropriations Committee are an illusion.

Perhaps later this week there will be news that for which one can feel thankful.

November 2, 2011

Standards of Service

Filed under: Organizational Issues — by Mark Chubb on November 2, 2011

Last week, I attended the Northeast Conference on Public Administration. The conference focused on efforts to build trust and confidence in public service. In principle, I have nothing against trust and confidence, but as last week’s post probably made clear, I think these feelings only get you so far.

Several theorists suggest that trust and confidence is an important prerequisite of democracy legitimacy. But practitioners know the absence of trust is often a prime mover among the disaffected who show up at public meetings to influence officials. It should come as no surprise then that the more involved someone is in the political and administrative processes of government, the more likely they are to have trust and confidence in the outcome of public processes and those who make them.

Most of the distrust in government and public officials stems from the sense that these individuals and institutions are increasingly removed from the experiences of those they serve and the effects of the decisions they make. Firefighters, teachers, nurses, and cops often enjoy public approval ratings far higher than politicians because they have intimate contact with people, and those with whom they come into contact have little or no understanding of what they actually do or how they do it. As such, routine exposure to the good works of public officials does not necessarily translate into public support much less political power.

This begs the question then, what is public trust and confidence good for and how can public officials, especially homeland security practitioners, build it and use it to achieve important public purposes? For starters, we should recognize that what people say they want and what these desires mean often requires clarification.

I work in the fire service, where people often express their expectations of us as follows:

Speedget there quickly.

Relevancedo the right thing.

Accuracydo things right.

I imagine that these same expectations apply to many other aspects of the homeland security enterprise. Who wouldn’t like to get through passenger screening at the airport quickly, while knowing that the screening procedures were both the minimum necessary as well as sufficient to prevent any acts of terrorism from occurring?

When questions or controversies arise surrounding our service, however, it become clearer that people understand that these expectations come at a cost, and their desire for each is more or less elastic depending upon their situation and the circumstances attending their need for service. Over the years, it has become clearer to me that people assess our performance and detect deviations from their expectations a little differently than they usually express them:

Speed –> consistency, dependabilityshowing up at all is just as important as getting there quickly.

Relevance –> coherence, qualityactions other than the expected are acceptable when they are based on sound reasoning.

Accuracy –> compassionwhether a decision or action is acceptable depends upon how it makes people feel.

These days people are increasingly surprised to get any response at all, much less a quick one. Knowing that someone will show up every time they need help has become every bit as important as knowing that such help will come quickly. People need to know they can depend upon government to try, even if it comes up short sometimes. Inconsistency lends itself to the impression of undependability, even when the lack of responsiveness in some circumstances leads to faster responses in others.

When performance deviates from expectations, people look to experts for understanding. They need to know that the actions fit the circumstances, and they often judge this in one of two ways: 1) by how hard people are trying and 2) by whether things get better or at the very least stop getting worse. It matters very little to those watching whether the actions they observe have a direct effect on the outcome so long as they can see people making an effort. If things get better or stop getting worse, they naturally assume that the result arises from the actions undertaken.

Even if things end badly, people often judge the quality of the outcome and its appropriateness by how those engaged in the effort made them feel. People understand implicitly that when things start badly they often end badly. But they also appreciate it when those who respond to remedy the effects of their errors avoid the temptation to find fault, allocate blame or pass judgment, especially without learning all the facts first.

I have translated these observations about public expectations into three fairly simple and straightforward statements to guide operations where I work:

We always show up! We are there for each other and our community when they need us.

We take decisive action to make things better. We are neither spectators nor observers. We take reasonable risks to achieve appropriate results and accept responsibility for all of our actions.

We engage everyone with compassion and respect. We treat people they way we want to be treated. We seek understanding by looking at ourselves and the situations we face the way others see us.

I cannot tell you that this approach will transform public opinion or translate into broad public approval or political support for our agency or its actions. But I  can say with confidence that taking this approach makes me feel better about what we do and how we do it. More importantly, it speaks to why wo do what we do: We serve the public for their sake not our own.

October 3, 2011

Operational Cooperation Led to the Death of Al-Awlaki: Lessons for Homeland Security?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Organizational Issues — by Arnold Bogis on October 3, 2011

Putting the legal issues aside for a moment (though they are certainly important: Phil has been raising important questions in his post on the matter and the blog Lawfare is a great source for approachable legal analysis), the operation that led to the death of Anwar al-Awlaqi may represent a model for homeland security operations.

According to a Washington Post article, the CIA and Defense Department worked closely in the Al-Awlaki drone strike:

Aulaqi’s death represents the latest, and perhaps most literal, illustration to date of the convergence between the CIA and the nation’s elite military units in the counterterrorism fight.


But after a decade of often inconclusive efforts against al-Qaeda, the Obama administration has relied on new levels of collaboration between the CIA and JSOC to push the terrorist network closer to collapse.


The attack on Aulaqi blended capabilities from both sides and was carried out under CIA authority that allowed for greater latitude in conducting lethal operations outside conventional war zones.

This is not  a trivial development or an expected evolution of our national security capabilities.  Instead, this cooperation that led to a fearsome ability to find, fix, and finish terrorist threats came about through the realization that the threat was greater than bureaucratic priorities and departmental politics.

Can this general outcome be repeated in the homeland security sphere?

I am not referring to dealing with identified terrorist threats within our borders.  Instead, can departments instrumental to preparedness, response, and recovery forge a working relationship as close as our intelligence agencies and military?  Can DHS and HHS and DOD etc., as well as local responders, public health officials, and other relevant non-federal stakeholders put aside their own priorities and create an incredibly efficient resilience machine?

This includes flexibility in legal statutes, willingness to let others take the credit or lead, and sharing of resources without thought to the bottom line.

I am hopeful…but wouldn’t bet on it.

March 9, 2011

Resilient Citizenship

Filed under: Organizational Issues — by Mark Chubb on March 9, 2011

Fellow New Zealander and political scientist Bronwyn Hayward of the University of Canterbury recently shared this video presentation prepared for the Gibson Group and the RESOLVE Center at the University of Surrey. Both groups are interested in the effects of policy decisions in liberal democracies on the development of notions of citizenship among youth.

Resilient Citizenship & the Christchurch EQ (Dr Bronwyn Hayward)

As Dr Hayward notes, resilient citizenship describes the ability of youth to develop and define themselves as efficacious advocates of their own needs and the common good. She identifies three seed principles essential to the development of capable young citizens:

  1. Social agency: the ability to organize and collaborate for the common good;
  2. Ecological education: a deep understand of the natural world and their place in it, particularly the forces that shape the future; and
  3. Embedded citizenship: a sense of the importance of individual action, personal responsibility and fairness.

The recent example of the University of Canterbury Student Association’s Volunteer Army, which mobilized 24,000 students through Facebook to help clear hundreds of thousands of tons of silt brought to the surface through the forces of liquefaction, illustrates these principles.

The UCSAmobilization demonstrated not just the efficiency of social media, but the importance of using it to leverage existing relationships among real people with common ties to a particular place. The willingness of the students to get involved rather than sit back and blame seismologists, geologists, civil engineers or political leaders for not preparing them for the effects of liquefaction or for clearing the residue quickly without their assistance reflected a keen understanding of the natural processes at work in the event. Finally, the way in which students identified the focus of their work and initiated action to complement the efforts of public officials by supporting the neediest residents and those least able to take care of themselves demonstrated a sound understanding of equity in action.

December 29, 2010

What I Learned in 2010

The end of one year and the beginning of another gives one pause. New beginnings are a chance to start over. If we’re honest with ourselves, a bit of reflection can help us enter the knew year equipped with insights that help us avoid or at least reduce the impact of new calamities like those that confronted us in the year before. As I look back at 2010 for lessons, here are the top five things I saw that make me wonder what the year ahead holds in store:

We still don’t know security when we see it. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously quipped in a landmark First Amendment case that he knew hard-core pornography when he saw it. Unfortunately, the naked truth about homeland security is we still know know what it is when we see it. Full body scanners and aggressive pat downs to search airline passengers have, however, hinted at the limits of public support for security theater. That said, we still have few clear hints how we should balance the competing interests of civil liberties like privacy and security.

We may be smarter, more successful and skillful than our adversaries, but that ain’t saying all that much; or, maybe it’s just hard to find good help these days. Most of the homeland security successes we witnessed this year, seem more like lucky strikes than genuinely skillful performances by our security services. Maybe that’s because our adversaries have had less success recruiting skilled operatives than we might have imagined. This makes me wonder: with unemployment still running nearly 10 percent nationally (and much higher in some minority communities) why is it so hard to find skilled help? What’s more, as local and state governments find themselves in the death grip of fiscal austerity, how will they meet public expectations of them for safety and security? Judging by public criticism of the response to severe weather events as we end the year, not well at all.

It’s the economy, stupid. Before we had even managed to stop writing or typing 2009 when we meant 2010, Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake that some estimates suggest killed more than 250,000 people and left millions more homeless. As the year came to a close, the country languished in the grip of a cholera epidemic and a presidential succession crisis. The flow of aid lagged far behind pledges from international donors, leaving the impoverished country barely clinging to life. If we ever had any reason to doubt the fact, Haiti confirmed that poverty is any adversary or calamity’s best friend. The corollary to that observation is equally clear and simple: Resilience is about resources. The fungibility of capital — that is the ability of any individual or group to apply their stores of human, social or political capital to conduct transactions that transform natural, economic or material resources to their own or others’ benefit — depends on both the sufficiency and diversity of those hard assets as much or more than any degree of cleverness or incentive to apply themselves. Necessity is the mother of chaos, not invention. In the absence of resources, don’t expect that to change unless you are willing to watch things get worse not better.

Victory (sometimes) favors the unprepared. The benefits of diverse stores of all forms of hard and soft capital was aptly illustrated by the New Zealand response to September’s earthquake in Christchurch and the numerous and still ongoing aftershocks. People there weren’t all that well prepared (especially for the specific event that occurred), but they knew how to use what they had to take care of what they needed. As such, they fared much better than the Haitians and required no outside assistance. The Chileans too, although better prepared than either the New Zealanders or Haitians, demonstrated that was all the more true when a society’s resources and mindsets are both well-adapted to the environment they inhabit.

Casting oil on the water sometimes makes waves. Rather than calming turbulent seas, the explosive destruction of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico and the resulting release of millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea made waves for months. Rather than crystallizing public opinion on energy policy and the need to invest in alternatives to petroleum, the federal response — both on a regulatory level and an operational level — came under intense criticism for ignoring the needs of local citizens who depended upon the Gulf of Mexico for their livelihood. Never mind that some depended upon industries that posed a risk to these ecosystems while others depended on the ecosystem itself, the debate never fully confronted the difficult policy choices facing the country now or in the future. As the federal government continues its work with Gulf Coast states on a recovery plan we should be looking forward not backward for answers about the future.

Clearly, many more things happened in 2010 than I have covered here. What were your top lessons learned from 2010? And what are your hopes for the year ahead?

December 22, 2010

Do Nothing

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Mark Chubb on December 22, 2010

Last week I noted in response to Arnold Bogis’s post on nuclear attack readiness and recent research on the effectiveness of different response strategies that research coming out of New Zealand, like the studies he cited, was raising uncomfortable questions about our conventional notions of what it means to be prepared or to respond effectively. The New Zealand research suggested that the people of Canterbury and Christchurch who experienced a M7.1 earthquake on September 4, 2010, were not very prepared but had proven quite resilient.

This raises some obvious questions. For starters, what do we mean by “prepared.” And for that matter how did the researcher define resilience. The research to which the New Zealand news source remains as yet unpublished, but as I am familiar with the territory I think it’s worth taking a stab at answering these questions for the sake furthering our ongoing discussions about resilience and its application to homeland security threats.

As it turns out, the people in Christchurch were not much better prepared than those in most communities we might survey here in the United States, which is to say that the great majority of them had taken no concrete steps to prepare themselves, their households or their businesses for an earthquake or other major emergency. Few people had stockpiled supplies, and only a few more had given any thought to how they might communicate with others or what actions they might take in the moments after the event.

That said, they did pretty much what you might expected someone to do when the actual event occurred: They waited for the ground to stop moving, picked themselves up, looked around and started asking themselves just what the hell had happened. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that there had been an earthquake, and quite a substantial one at that. As they surveyed their homes in the pre-dawn darkness and went outside they began interacting with their neighbors who were doing the same thing. Those in areas that experienced liquefaction, especially those in areas close to the coast, began questioning the wisdom of staying put and some started to head inland to higher and drier ground together.

Others who found themselves less convinced that further peril was imminent attempted to check on loved ones. Those who could get a cellphone signal usually couldn’t get through. So they tried texting. In most cases that worked fine, and they quickly established confidence that they could rely on others to help them and vice versa.

As dawn broke and the damage to commercial buildings and public facilities became evident, people started looking for opportunities to help out. Those who were already part of some organized group, like the university students association or the local rugby club for instance, relied on these social networks to assemble others and organize them to lend a hand in whatever way they could be most useful. In most cases, these working parties participated in activities completely unrelated to the organization’s customary function and, as such, had to invent some of the rules governing how they would work together as they went along.

From these descriptions we can discern a couple of things: First, preparedness is not about stuff or plans. It is a mindset. People were not surprised that an earthquake occurred. Although they were not materially prepared, they understood that the event was a call for them to do something, anything even, as long as it was reasonable and useful. This leads to the second observation: resilience is characterized in such situations by three elements:

  1. Spontaneous, often unplanned and usually ad hoc efforts to employ available resources,
  2. In ways that either attain or help maintain the stability of existing networks,
  3. In a dynamic or hostile environment characterized by unusual levels of uncertainty, ambiguity or both.

The resulting responses encourage further adaptive efforts, often out of scale to their material effects on the situation, by mobilizing or encouraging complementary or cooperative efforts by others. The resulting shared experience yields benefits to participants and the society as a whole by forging new, often more efficient pathways for the allocation of resources and effort.

Why is it important to clarify these definitions? For starters, we still struggle mightily with questions about what steps we should be taking now to ensure resilience emerges at some point in the future. If the Canterbury experience is indicative, maybe we need do nothing or at least nothing peculiar or particular to homeland security and emergency management.

In the current fiscal climate we might do well to consider whether we can do anything more effective than simply staying out of the way. We may just discover all that’s required to improve community resilience is for us to do nothing that impedes or discourages people from doing what they will anyway. If we’re lucky a can-do culture just might emerge.

October 20, 2010

Still Crazy

Filed under: Organizational Issues,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on October 20, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, in a comment prompted by Arnold Bogis’ inaugural weekly post to this website, Phil Palin recounted a conversation with an unnamed colleague whom he quoted as having said, “With the best of intentions — but worst of results — our current emergency management mentality systematically breeds dependence. We are our own worst enemy.” All I can say is Pogo would be proud.

Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow probably would be as well. In his recent book, Be Very Afraid,Wuthnow critically examines the cultural roots of the American obsession with Armageddon and the always just impending threat of self-annihilation. It does not diminish his argument or its thoroughly scholarly presentation to say his summation is not so far from that of Phil’s friend. In short, Wuthnow concludes that our efforts to put people at ease are largely responsible for their inexorable anxiety about the future.

The threats we face are real enough. But the ways we try to reassure people, Wuthnow tells us, leave them wondering whether we really have matters in hand. After all, many of the threats we warn them about are of our own making.

It is fair enough to say that we are not personally responsible for creating the threats, but the governmental, technocratic tribe to which we belong does bear  responsibility both for the decisions and actions that render us vulnerable while simultaneously directing other members to find remedies for these unsavory yet entirely foreseeable situations. Schizophrenic does not even begin to describe the situation.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald so aptly noted, intelligent people may be able to hold two contradictory notions in mind at once, but surely both arguments must have some particular appeal to them for this to be the case without the anxiety becoming apparent to them if not downright unbearable. When we confront people with evidence of their mortality, make it clear that they cannot depend upon government alone to rescue them and then implore them to trust that we know what we are doing when it comes to managing the threats we face they rightly wonder whether we are the crazy ones.

Maybe we are. Focusing on pathological thinking leaves unanswered an important question: “What would it look like if we we were healthy, happy and safe? How would we know if we were in such a state?”

Phil’s post over the weekend cites a Wall Street Journal essay by University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt. His research focuses on the nexus between moral beliefs and political behavior. In Haidt’s most recent published book, The Happiness Hypothesis, he suggests that the virtues we practice not only reveal the values we hold but inform them as well. In other words, we are — at least in part — what we do, and these actions are usually motivated by our comfort if not our interests.

To the extent the things we are doing strike many citizens as inconsistent if not necessarily insane should come as no big surprise. The public’s behavior may be little more than an outward sign of the internal anxiety caused by watching what we are doing. If either their behavior or our reaction to them makes us uneasy too, then perhaps we should take Haidt’s WSJ diagnosis as a challenge. Are we willing to something about it?

I’ve watched for years as local public safety executives and unions have expressed their anger and frustration with the level of support they get locally (which is formidable by anyone else’s reckoning, dwarfing all but education, health and welfare spending it its magnitude) to demand federal interventions and funding support. The chiefs’ and unions’ obsessions with what they are not getting has all but overwhelmed their ability to appreciate what can be done with what they already have. As such, I wonder whether their apparent anger masks something deeper and darker: An insidious fear that people might not notice if the money was spent elsewhere or not at all.

Police chiefs, fire chiefs and other public safety executives wield considerable influence over their organizations and in the community at-large. They occupy positions typically associated with power. Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer reminds us that those who hold positions of power are not always the most able, best loved or for that matter all that empathetic. Rather they are the ones most adept at playing the game. In his book, Power, Pfeffer notes without the least hint of cynicism that those in power accept three things others find it hard to swallow: 1) they accept that life is not just, 2) they relate to the world as it is (or as they perceive it to be) rather than as others wish it to be, and 3) they don’t base their definition of themselves or the best course of action in a given situation on how others see them.

We like to believe that others think the way we do. We want to believe that they want the same things we want. But that’s clearly not the case most if not all of the time. If it were, we would not find ourselves faced with the soaring levels of distrust in government and disagreement about priorities so obviously evident across our society.

If insanity can be defined as doing the same things over and over and expecting different results, what should we be doing differently? If local public safety officials are really committed to building stronger, safer communities what actions should they be taking instead of the ones we are seeing? What role, if any, should federal officials play in promoting ideals consistent with these actions? Do standards or mandates have a place in bringing this about?

October 14, 2010

Should there be a Goldwater-Nichols for citizen engagement in homeland security?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Organizational Issues,Strategy — by Arnold Bogis on October 14, 2010

“We will support the development of prepared, vigilant, and engaged communities and underscore that our citizens are the heart of a resilient country.”

–National Security Strategy, May 2010

In defense-oriented circles, “Goldwater-Nichols” is shorthand for activity that improves cooperation and integration through reorganization and other measures.  It refers to a law passed by Congress in the 1980s that reorganized the Department of Defense and promoted unity among the various services.  In essence, Goldwater-Nichols is synonymous with the concept of jointness.

What does this have to do with the public’s role in homeland security?  Isn’t it pretty straightforward—get a kit, make a plan, be informed?  In addition, if you see something, say something. Oh, and if someone in your community exhibits signs of becoming “radicalized,” inform the authorities.  And don’t forget to buy the appropriate insurance for the risks present in your area. Etc., etc., etc.

According to national strategies and cabinet secretaries, the citizen plays a central role in homeland security.  There is a lot asked of the public, and the focus areas of these activities are spread across different disciplines and departments.  So is it fair to ask whose job in government it is to wake up everyday and think “how can we better engage the public across the full range of homeland security activities?” “Are there synergies that can be exploited?”  Or, instead, is this an area where the fabled “silos of excellence” are important—due to their distinct natures, keeping the particular responsibilities closest to their related government agencies?

Whole-of-government approaches are sexy (as government goes), theoretically efficient, and bring the promise of relatively quick results.  Yet they are difficult to implement in practice as bureaucracies are not configured to encourage or facilitate this type of approach.  A traditional approach where each department or agency concentrates solely on the area of engagement that coincides with their mission intuitively sounds wasteful, and given the level of success to this point, likely to fail.  However, it could be that given increased priority within their mission sets would result in each distinct effort achieving far greater gains when worked in (practical) isolation.

Personally, I have not yet made up my mind on the possible merits of a comprehensive vs. narrow approach, but it is a discussion that should happen.

For an idea that is considered central to our concepts of homeland security and resilience and as an anointed partner of federal, state, local, and tribal authorities, there is comparatively little effort or resources put towards strengthening the public’s role.

Just for perspective, here is a short list of citizen activities:


See something, say something perfectly describes the actions of the Times Square street vendors who noticed Faisal Shahzad’s parked SUV was out of place and alerted passing police.   This campaign is going nationwide as DHS and DOJ promote it in conjunction with a Suspicious Activity Reporting initiative that hypothetically will allow law enforcement personnel to translate the somethings being said into useful information without infringing on civil liberties.

For a supportive view, see a recent New York Times op-ed by John Farmer Jr., a former senior counsel for the 9/11 commission, “How to Spot a Terrorist.”



This aspect has been covered many times by contributors and others on this blog, so I will simply add that an invaluable source of information on public preparedness from a citizen’s point of view is John Solomon, author of the blog “In Case of Emergency, Read Blog” (http://incaseofemergencyblog.com/).  He covers the subject from multiple angles, from innovations in public engagement to interviews with top homeland security officials, and practices what he preaches as a CERT member in New York City.


As the waters receded from the terrible spring flooding in Tennessee, some thoughts turned to steps that residents could take to help mitigate the damage from the almost certain next catastrophic deluge:



FEMA Director Craig Fugate not only uses the word “survivor” instead of “victim” when describing those impacted by disasters, he recognizes that it is the public that will be the true first responder during any large incident.  In that spirit, Gregg Lord of the George Washington University led a project on “community medical resiliency,” a part of which is the idea that citizens can (and during a catastrophe, will have to) rely upon themselves to provide some measure of basic medical care as officials will be overwhelmed. (Disclosure: I worked on this project so I might be biased concerning the validity of the concept):



It seems obvious that the public will be engaged in recovery activities following a disaster—they are personally involved.  What might not be so obvious is that there are steps that can be taken before an event that will help with recovery afterwards.  The theory behind this concept comes from Harvard Kennedy School professors Herman Leonard and Arnold Howitt, who have written that balancing resource allocation across leverage points (prevention, mitigation, preparedness, preparing to recover, response, and recovery) is vital for crisis management.  In their view, preparing to recover activities have been almost entirely neglected.

For the theory: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/var/ezp_site/storage/fckeditor/file/pdfs/centers-programs/programs/crisis-leadership/Acting%20in%20Time%20Against%20Disaster.pdf

For information on real world application: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/programs/crisisleadership/projects

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