Marking Time

1/32 B-38 Hustler – yes, it really is made from paper…!!!

I am frantically working on three papers at the moment which has severely cramped my daily post style…it is also the beginning of March which means that the second question in the HLS roundtable is now ‘live’ which means a fourth paper should be gestating somewhere in the dark spaces between my ears…the second question is “Why are we unable to measure the relationship between homeland security expenditures and preparedness?

The good weather (is this really summer?) hasn’t been helping but Carmen and I did get heaps done around the place over the weekend so there is progress somewhere…

By means of a space filler, the test build on Ken L. West’s B-58 has just been completed at Paper Modelers and I expect that the model will soon be available for purchase and download at Ecardmodels soon…

There was a great full moon last night and Carmen and I missed a goodly chunk of Doc Martin (normally must-see TV in this household) to try to capture it…this is about the best of my attempts but I expect that Carmen’s will be much better as she has the eye for these things that I lack…

Moonlight Over Raurimu

We’ve also been experimenting in the kitchen again but will save that for a dedicated post…

Hoping, wishing, praying…

In More on Risk-based decision making in Homeland security, Dean introduces hope-based decision-making “… Hopefully the most significant threats are the ones you’re already focused on.  As long as they are, you’re ok.  When they aren’t, you stand by…and say to everyone who will listen ‘No one could have predicted this’.”

Remember that time when you were four, and that big plate glass window in the lounge kinda got broken and even though you were the only person in the lounge playing with Dad’s golf clubs, you still hope a whole lot that your invisible friend is going to materialise and take the rap? Fast-forward thirty years to when your boss says ‘we’ will carry the risk – you really hope that he really does mean ‘we’ and not ‘you’? Or that time you decided to invade Iraq and hoped that a. a lot of WMD would turn up really quickly and b. that the UN would get over itself and follow-on with civil aid and reconstruction programmes? Each of these scenarios has three things in common:

You have a nagging feeling how things are really going to turn out.

Those consequences are probably going to hurt.

When you think about it, you really knew better.

This week, Neptunus Lex published an item for aviators The ‘Possible’ Turn which discusses the options available to a pilot when an engine fails on take-off. The commonly held truism is that any attempt to turn back to the recently departed runway is doomed to fail – doom in the worse possible sense of the word – one of those manouevres based more upon hope than physics. Lex argues in aviation speak that this might not actually be the case for a suitably experienced pilot – equipped with an ability to make practical decisions fast. Also in the mail this morning was an article discussing the proposed shift in focus of the PRT in Afghanistan to a more civil focus at a time when surge-inflicted chaos may boil over into other provinces. I wondered about this too In the Ghan.

When we established our joint headquarters in 2001, many suggested that each external door should have a big sign ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE. For different reasons, they were probably right: hope has no place in any organisation where lives are at stake.

So why do we do it so often? There are three factors:

Partly it is simple laziness – we’ve always done it like this and it’s always been OK before.

Another part is simply sticking with what we know – after decades of peacetime engagement and peacekeeping, it is difficult to shed that mindset for that necessary for operating in and around a warfighting environment where the threats are very really and unlikely to be assuaged by an umpire with a blue rag tied around one arm.

The third factor is that making good decisions has to be practiced regularly – and that includes being able to quickly sift through all the available information to extract the key points, digest them and then make the call.

Supporting good decisions is a firm ethical and cultural foundation based upon three key qualities:

The Competence to understand the environment and the issues.

The Courage to promote an unpalatable or unpopular line of reason.

The Integrity to see the issue through when the going gets tough.

Regularly we see news items when agents of government at all levels fail to display one or all of these qualities. And every time, the parent agency trots out its Code of Conduct, duly signed by all employees “Hey, look – it’s not our corporate fault!” And why isn’t it ‘our’ fault? Because it’s too hard for the HR Nazis to snap out of their nice objective competencies and consider applying some subjective qualitative assessments on potential recruits? It is interesting to note that those agencies where people are more likely to work collectively as opposed to as individuals are more likely to have a sound organisational ethos and culture – the two that spring to mind immediately are the military and the Fire Service; law enforcement to a far lesser extent because they tend to function as individuals not collective teams (STG, HRS, SWAT, etc being exceptions but only a small percentage of their respective agencies.

But developing, fostering and embedding an ethos and culture based on these qualities into an existing organisation is doable. We’re running an interesting ‘experiment’ here where the new Head of Customs is a highly-regarded former two-star who is doing exactly that. But what he’s brought to Customs is not so much thirty odd years of military experience – it is too easy to fall into the trap that ex-military staff have all the answers; they can have a lot of the problems too – but good old-fashioned command and LEADERSHIP.

So in terms of our discussions regarding decision-making in homeland security, the very first thing that we need to consider is raising the bar of competence. That means introducing more than just training, more than just practicing what we preach; it means that we need to set and conform to some basic standards of performance, weed out those who are more social than team members. I was once posted to a base that is quite isolated and where there was some institutional resistance to being posted there. Most of this was of the “well, everyone says it’s a bad place so it must be a bad place to go” variety and as a result, anyone volunteering to be posted there was usually snapped up. When I arrived, there was some debate raging over this posting policy and after about two weeks on the job, I feel firmer in to the camp of “‘it’s better to have a gap than to fill it with a warm body that does nothing; at least when you have a gap, you know you have a gap and can work around it. When the chair is filled, you keep kidding yourself that the incumbent may one day surprise you and actually do something useful – but it never happens”.

The flip side of competency is training, training that is relevant and current for the job at hand because it takes knowledge to fend off hope – yep, that’s right, Hope, we don’t want you here!! and this is where doctrine, lessons learned, organisational learning, knowledge management and all those other good things come together…to…get the right information…to the right people…at the right time…and ensure that they know what to do with it…

It all comes back to that…

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.

Accepting risk

Who hasn’t heard this answer to a curly question “We’ll carry the risk“? Yeah, that’s nice but who’ll be accepting the responsibility?


This is the first in a series that will progress throughout 2010. The idea comes from Dean at Travels with Shiloh who has invited a group of commentators to discuss the twelve questions asked in this article Changing Homeland Security: Twelve Questions From 2009 from the Homeland Security Affairs Journal (HSAJ). Yours truly is one of those privileged to be invited to contribute to this discussion.

The first question is Why is it so difficult to make risk-based decisions in homeland security? Other contributions on this question so far are:

Risk based decisions in homeland security issues

I’ve been working on this for over a week and, to be honest, have really struggled with it. What follows is still tortorously prolonged but I’ve left it ‘as is’ to show the process by which I got to the answer. In a couple of weeks, I will rework it into something a little more coherent.

Defining the question

Before launching into discussion on the topic at hand, I first thought it would be an idea to define my interpretation of the terms in the question.

  • Difficult is the opposite of easy although it may be more correct to swap out ‘difficult’ for ‘simple’ and the degree of difficulty is directly linked to the level of complexity now common in such equations.
  • I cast the net pretty wide to define risk-based decisions. Although there were few, if any, military or HLS examples in first 100 hits when I searched ‘risk-based decisions’ on Bing; the most common seemed to those relating to auditing, insurance, health and event management. There was enough material there for me to comfortable with the R = T x V x C; Risk is the product of Threat, Vulnerability, and Consequence equation in the original HSAJ article.
  • Homeland Security is very much a US term with specific definition, membership and connotations. For our more global audience, I am using ‘HLS’ as the collective grouping of domestic, i.e. non-expeditionary,  military, security, intelligence, law enforcement, and emergency management agencies. I don’t believe that the establishment or not of an overarching agency like HLS affects the decision making process either way.

The Question

My first thought is whether it is actually difficult or, as implied in the question, if it is correct that risk-based decisions are not being made in homeland security. I would argue that they actually are, across our nations, thousands and thousands of them daily.

One approach I have found very useful when working through issues relating to the Contemporary Operating Environment (COE) by establishing a comparison with the more traditional and conventional environment that many of us are still more comfortable with or in.

If we were gearing up for yet another defence of the Fulda Gap at the operational level or even analysing intentions at the state on state level, such assessments are relatively simple and we still get them wrong with monotonous regularity, as Argentina found soon after taking Port Stanley in 1982, and Saddam found after reclaiming Kuwait in 1990. Characteristics of assessments at this level and in this environment might include:

  • Limited number and type of threats.
  • Gradual build-up and lead-in indicators.
  • Motivators/catalysts are usually understood strategies, policies and philosophies.
  • Most players are known values.
  • Big hands, big arrows, small maps.
  • Platform-based i.e focused on tracking ships, units, and formed groups; less focus on personality than major capability.
  • Unified organisations on both sides.
  • Geographic areas and boundaries are well defined.
  • The three organisational functions/groups derived from Clausewitz (people, leadership, action arm) are clearly defined and visible.

‘Simple’ as used in the paragraph above does not necessarily mean easy, just less complex in comparison to today’s environment.

Compare then this model against that faced in the HLS environment. The most obvious change is that we now need to track individuals a la the Scheiern model, not just those that we know might be players or even those who might be, but also those who might just have had a bad day, or just have had ‘enough’. The most recent example of this might be the shootings in Ft Hood and Seattle last year. Although some commentators immediately heralded the Ft Hood incident as the beginning of a domestic 4GW campaign, there has been no evidence to support such claims. Both incidents instead are illustrative of both the unpredictable and micro natures of the domestic environment.

HLS organisations are also not formed and formal organisations like the DoD, NATO, or even the Warsaw Pact. At best it is a bureaucratic umbrella sitting over a diverse collection of agencies all with their own priorities and outputs, and generally very tactically focused. Certainly there is not the same degree, not even a hint thereof, of the command and control arrangements to be found in a single agency in its own right or a large organisation like the DoD with defined roles and responsibilities

Mix in with this nature’s fickleness, for example, earthquakes in Haiti, bush fires in Australia and snow in the Washington DC area. Although the probablity of such incidents is a given, assessment of incidence and severity leans more to the arcane than the scientific: for now, Poughkeepsie Phil probably remains our best indicator for seasonal change.

To use a household analogy, you used to have three dogs and a couple of cats that normally got on with each other. The causes of discord were well-known and it wasn’t too much of a task to prevent major conflict. Then Great Aunt Anastasia dies and left you her ant farm and  ‘tame’ wasp hive; for various reasons, and as tempting as it is at times, investing in a couple of gallons of Raid is not a socially acceptable option. You’re stuck with it. You’re not impressed, the dogs and the cats aren’t impressed, and most likely the ants and wasps aren’t that thrilled either. Oh, and the boiler’s sprung a leak, taxes have just gone up, and old Mrs Grey next door has just lopped off her leg with a chainsaw. Welcome to the world of homeland security – please start your risk-based decision-making process HERE.

HLS as an entity will always find it difficult at best to conduct risk assessment as we and Third Shock Army (8th Guards for some folk) understand them from the Fulda Gap. But that is not to say that risk based assessment does not occur daily across the spectrum of homeland defence in law enforcement, emergency response, security and intelligence fields. I doubt that there are any agencies under the homeland security umbrella where the staff just sit back, bite into another donut, sip on their lattes and just wait around for something to happen. Just because it doesn’t happen in the comfortable macro format that many of us are used to, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen…it just happens at the micro level necessary for these agencies to fulfill their primary roles

At that’s the thing, most homeland security agencies have local or regional responsibilities and meeting these is their main priority. Unlike perhaps military organisations which generally devote a reasonably large proportion of time and resources to things that might happen, most HLS agencies are fully committed to meeting real-time outputs like catching bad guys, saving lives, fighting fires and rescuing kittens (think that last one isn’t important? – try telling that to old Mrs Smyth and still keep ‘the people’ on side). Most of them do this well.

Their world may be too complex for precise prediction but something else they also do well is respond. Within those contingencies that they know from past experience are most likely, these agencies can and do turn out and perform credibly thousands of time every day…and against these contingencies there is quite robust risk-based assessment and decision-making…why do police surge for New Years Eve activities, firejumpers have winter leave and paramedics specific tools and treatments over others? These people think, with some justification, that they are quite good at such decisions within their respective areas of expertise and responsibility.

Where they are weaker perhaps in in working and interfacing with each other beyond local relationships, especially where there may be issues of command and control or jurisdiction. HLS is never going to be the uber-C2 construct that DoD is – I think that FEMA perhaps tried this and we all saw how well that worked. Where HLS might begin to add real value is in championing the interoperability cause and facilitating communications, cultural awareness and information sharing between agencies.

An interesting insight from the 2004 Manawatu flooding (look it up – it made the top ten natural disaster list for the year) is that the civil defence plan went out the window only 30 seconds after the state of emergency was declared. BUT the value of the plan was in the planning; in bringing the various agencies together prior so that at least key staff had met, there was a general awareness of potential resources, and an awareness of issues from other perspectives. We saw the same again when the Mt Ruapehu lahar (finally) went in 2007. The event itself was almost anticlimatic because all the agencies involved (none of whom could agree on the probability or severity of the lahar happening) had been required to hammer out their difference and develop a collective response to the threat.

Where risk-based decisions really are difficult in HLS is on the terrorism side of the house. This won’t be news to Europeans, most of whom have endured domestic and/or third-party terrorist acts on their territory for decades. Terrorism itself is still subject to the same variables of complexity and uncertainty found across the HLS functional spectrum. What changes with terrorism is the false assumption that terrorist attacks can be prevented and the resulting pressure upon to HLS make this so. King Canute might offer some topical observations on this after his seashore experiments went wrong.

The Answer

The R = T x V x C equation for risk-based decision making is of little value so long the only acceptable answer is zero. Risk based decisions are made thousands of times every day in HLS – we’re just not interested in the answers. Perhaps the question that should have been asked is not Why is it so difficult to make risk-based decisions in homeland security? but When will we learn to accept risk in HLS?