Standing firm

Last week I was asked how I thought one might develop and implement a homeland security agency here. Dean’s initiative with the Homeland Security Round Table this year is proving an ideal catalyst for forming and shaking out those ideas…

In Risky Business, lunghu identifies a key factor in homeland security risk management and mitigation, that of personal self-preservation aka CYA. He also alludes to the flip side of this coin which is the hair-pulling cat-fight whenever there is any credit or praise due. The CYA factor is pure human nature and one of those things that has to be programmed out of people…organisations like the Marines do it especially well at the same time they embed the ethos of the Corps into each and every recruit. It doesn’t always need Gunny Leanin-Mean and a Smokey the Bear hat to do this but the points to take away are

  • that they do it.
  • they believe it is important to do it.
  • that they do it at the very beginning of a recruit’s career in the Corps.
  • those who don’t ‘get it’ are cycled out.
  • they do it as a part of embedding Marine Corps ethos and culture.

This is in stark contract to most, if not all, government agencies where there is little or no effort applied to developing and maintain a formal organisational ethos and culture to mitigate CYA and self-preservation instincts.

Overnight in a place I once worked, a series of  flyers appeared  on almost every vertical surface. I can’t remember the exact words now but they were along the lines of “Imagine how much we could achieve if we cared less who got the credit”. Of course, outrage erupted across the organisation the next morning and various delegations stormed through the new Chief of Staff’s door, demanding he “do something about it!” He responded that he fully intended to otherwise “…it’d be a waste of my time pinning them all up…” There was much gnashing of teeth, tearing of hair and whiny-babying around the coffee machine but he was as good as his word and drove a ‘we, us, ours‘ stake through the ‘I, me, mine‘ heart of that organisation, totally transforming it. Today I still cringe when I hear senior staff launching forth on ‘I, me, mine‘ soap boxes.

One of the fundamentals that feel out of our (←see?) work on COIN doctrine in the last few years is the importance of a well-embedded individual and collective culture and ethos across the organisation. When the heat is on in the real world i.e. on a broader front that purely ‘on operations’, we find that time and again the real driver behind a decision is not the formal consequences for any particular action e.g. the full force of The Law, be it civil, DM 69, UCMJ or other authorities; all the more often the driver behind a decision is the personal ethos of the individual. There are those who ethos will take them down the comfortable expedient path of least resistance; there are others who will take a stand. I think it was in Lucifer’s Hammer that Jerry Pournelle wrote “…the hardest decision is usually the right decision…

A number of years ago, some rocket scientist decided that Police didn’t need commanders, it needed managers. Fair enough you might think after looking up the Oxford English definition of ‘manage’, and so all Police district commanders became district managers. One day, the hard working Police officers in one such ‘managed’ district decided they had enough evidence to raid a suspected drug operation in the back blocks. To be successful, they needed helicopter support…but…it was getting near the end of the financial year and district managers had been promised a hefty bonus if they ended the year a certain percentage under their budgets.  So “…sorry, lads, can’t approve any choppers for this op…” The ‘lads’ however, being resourceful and highly PO’d with the concepts of management, arranged for a neighbouring district, still flush with $, to provide the necessary helicopter support – apparently there was some greyness regarding district boundaries – so the operation could proceed. It was a massive success and the ensuing media coverage brought out some interesting side stories…needless to say, Police here now have district commanders again…

Every organisation already has an ethos and a culture but they might actually be working against the aims and objectives of the organisation, in the manner that lunghu describes and others. Ethos and culture is a little more than signing off on the corporate code of conduct. At the very least, that code of conduct needs to be relevant to the organisation and practical in its application. It is more than anti-harassment, health and safety, and equal rights. To hit it with a very broad bat, it is ‘doing the right thing‘, standing firm under adversity. While that may mean a great many things to a great many people (including both readers of this blog), knowing where the delineation between personal and organisational interests lies is a good start point.

At Travels with Shiloh, Dean goes (IMHO) a little over the top in his initial comments on Accepting Risk the other day – if only he knew how worried I was that I might not make the grade for Round 1 of the HLS Round Table discussions. I always felt we were pretty much on  a par with each other and one of the reasons I added Travels with Shiloh to my blogroll was that I thought it set a standard for me to aspire to.

Anyway, Dean identifies another weakness in the current US HLS structure: in order to share in the post of federal gold allocation to HLS, many agencies, especially those that are smaller and less-resourced, have to proclaim a disproportionate degree of interest in big picture HLS issues. I’m reminded of the scam perpetrated in The Closer when, in order to keep all the detectives in the team to investigate homicides (real now problem) the team have to take time out to train in various counter-terrorism functions (may be, one day possibility). I’m sure that this was not pure fiction and also that it was not based upon an isolated incident.

I think it was Peter Drucker who said (possibly in On Management) that organisations should stick to their core functions: for example, churches should focus on saving souls and less on social services; the military should focus on ‘winning our wars’ and not upon saving troubled youth from themselves (unless said youth can make it through the recruiting process); lawyers should focus on the law and less on accountancy (might keep a few more of them from going behind bars too!), etc etc. Most of the agencies that make up the vast conglomerate known as HLS are pretty good at their core functions, not perfect perhaps but adequate. One might ask then what value HLS the actual organisation actually offers to either the individual agencies at one end of the scale or overall homeland and national security at the other?

I’m saving Dean’s comments re hope-based decision making for another post as it is  a good point but one which I’d like to tie into some other work.

1 thought on “Standing firm

  1. I still have my dog-eared copy of Lucifer’s Hammer. I’m a sucker for a good end of the world tale.

    The military does a pretty good job (some branches better than others) of raising the ‘we’ factor to a level comparable with the ‘I’ factor. Of course, to do that they have to impose some serious restrictions of people’s lives as well as remind everyone that without a ‘we’ focus, the consequences may be death.

    It’s hard to replicate that in the civilian world to the same degree but we certainly could do better. When I first was exposed to the law enforcement realm after coming from the military I was shocked at the level of parochialism in the field. Agencies who refused to work together, (even if it meant an operation would fall apart), information hording by individuals, widespread accusations of people stealing credit for investigations.

    IMO, that’s a function of the organization’s reward system. Like in most civilian agencies you dole out rewards (promotions, bonuses, etc.) usually based upon individual performance.

    While the military also rewards individual performance it also has a system for encouraging collective action. I don’t know if you could develop a similar civilian system.

    And I think you’re spot on in not encouraging agencies to do work they aren’t situated for. It’s not that they shouldn’t adapt to changing environments but sometimes the new work is contradictory to their core mission.


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