Analysis & Opinions - The Huffington Post

Applying the "Obama Model" for Homeland Security

| Feb. 11, 2009

"What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?"

President Obama spoke these words to a Chicago reporter in 1995, and his presidential victory was due in large part to a community-organizer strategy. This approach should be applied to homeland security.

The shortcomings of homeland security efforts are well known. Among them the failure to instill a "culture of preparedness" in the public and accusations that guidance emanates from Washington without any consideration of local conditions. This stems from a federal point of view that considers homeland security an extension of national security dictated from inside the beltway. Change will require upending this perspective.

During the campaign, Obama did not simply inspire independent, spontaneous grassroots organization around the country. His campaign strategy involved using outreach templates that were easily transferable and adaptable to local conditions. It channeled enthusiasm for the candidate into a system that produced results. Because the same template was used around the country, campaign personnel could be shifted to different states and immediately make an impact.

There were attempts at some decentralization, if not ground-up organization, of homeland security during the Bush Administration. Early plans for robust regional DHS offices that could form close working relationships with local officials were rejected. After the failure to respond adequately to Katrina, the National Response Framework was developed as a means to coordinate disaster response. Yet substantial pushback came from local and state officials whose input was initially ignored. Efforts at promoting preparedness were pursued through the initiative, but numerous surveys have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of this program.

To improve homeland security, the administration must reach out to citizens and provide real education about the threats they face. Engagement with the public on a scale not yet seen can be accomplished, but will require a new type of "ground game" exemplified by Obama's campaign.

Efforts to utilize both the existing grassroots structure and tools are underway, though as an independent non-profit organization separate from the government. Early indications are that the initial focus will be on helping drive the new administration's initiatives. There is speculation that a national service component might be included that could assist in the aftermath of natural disasters. It and related activities should include efforts to foster preparedness by applying an Obama organization mantra: "respect, empower, and include" citizens in homeland security.

This will require expanded use of social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as traditional communication means. The administration should also heed the suggestion of a recent government commission that recommended empowering citizens beyond the role of Chicken Little, asking little more than preparing for the sky to fall. Instead, as the chairman former Senator Bob Graham put it, if citizens are informed about the dangers they face they can hold their elected officials responsible for preparing and make vital choices themselves, such as voting to appropriately fund local emergency medical services to meet potential threats.

Beyond citizen engagement, this strategy should instill a new frame of reference for policymakers in Washington. The viewpoint through which they consider the majority of homeland security topics need to shift to a bottom-up from a top-down approach. This change is urgently required in the grant process, response planning, and intelligence sharing. Establishing regional DHS offices would be an important initial step. Improved connections between federal and local officials should improve intelligence products, provide insight into the needs of high risk areas, and facilitate regional preparedness and response planning.

As the economy sinks deeper into recession, local and state governments facing budget shortfalls are slashing services. On her first day as Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano announced plans to "promote policies to more fully integrate American state, local, and tribal governments in the development of policies and programs." This should be the first step towards an approach that not only empowers citizens but also takes into account the varied circumstances at the local level that will best protect this country from natural and manmade disasters.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bogis, Arnold.“Applying the "Obama Model" for Homeland Security.” The Huffington Post, February 11, 2009.