More on Risk-based decision making in homeland security

Simon addresses the topic in a post that I thought was so good it filled me with temporary self-loathing and jealousy for how poorly I organize my writing and get me ideas across (get ready for a post about that later).

Interestingly, he tackles the topic from a different perspective than I did and makes the point that, even though we often overlook it, risk-based decision making happens all the time among first responders.  I raise a couple of issues in the comments section but I’d like to take a second to go into a bit of depth with an analogy he uses to describe the difficulties in instituting a systemic risk-based decision making regime and slightly re-purpose it to make a semi-related point.

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.

I’d like to riff off that analogy to explain how I see the problem.

In addition to the above, imagine your Aunt Anastasia’s home is 100 years old and she did no work on it the whole time she lived there.  Your know-it-all brother-in-law tells you that houses of that age usually have weak roofs and lead pipes which can cause all sorts of health problems.  In addition he points out some saw dust around the foundation which (he thinks) might be an indicator of termites.

In addition, you notice your neighbors seem to be expanding their yards into what you thought was your property.  Getting a surveyor in however will take significant money and attention.

Now, you could continue to focus on the myriad problems mentioned first.  The ants, wasps, dogs, cats, taxes, etc. will certainly keep you fully occupied.  The roof and foundation may hold up for another 20 years…or they may collapse tomorrow.  You simply have no information about them.

So, do you divert some of your scarce time and resources to find out about those things?  Things might (probably will) slip through the cracks.  But without some sort of understanding of all the problems your facing you really aren’t engaging in risk based decision making.  You’re engaging in 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 looking at your collapse roof and say to everyone who will listen “No one could have predicted this.”

I’d argue this is pretty close to what we have now, especially at the sub-federal level.  I’m not arguing that every Mayberry out there should been knee deep in tribal politics of Yemen and what threat that may pose but there are lots of places where there are threats right in an agency’s backyard that consistently avoid consideration.

An example:  In some immigrant communities (particularly those that have significant language barriers and cultural differences) criminal networks prey upon individuals knowing that individuals in these communities are loath to go to authorities (sometimes due to immigration, tax or cultural issues).  Because these communities are insulated and isolated from most political institutions they just don’t show up on anyone’s radar.  They (and the threats they face) are overlooked until it spills over into the ‘mainstream’ community.

And the big thing I have heartache over is that agencies (which do a good job taking care of most day-to-day emergencies) are forced to claim to do all that high speed risk assessment if they want to share in that pot of gold known as federal grant money.

And that is bad for everyone.

Lunghu over at Waking the Dragon takes yet another view of such decisions.  He raises the point that  “the risk being assessed by homsec functionaries is not (solely) the risk of harm to the homeland, but rather (primarily?) the risk to their own careers and reputations.”

Now all we need is someone to weave all this together to form a grand unified theory.

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2 responses to “More on Risk-based decision making in homeland security

  1. Pingback: Standing firm « The World According to Me…

  2. Pingback: Hoping, wishing, praying… « The World According to Me…

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