Washington Air National Guardsman Master Sgt. Richard Dessert travels the treacherous mountainous roads near Utuado, Puerto Rico, in order to deliver Hurricane Maria relief supplies Oct. 5, 2017. (Courtesy photo to DoD by Richard Dessert)

HSToday Profile: Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center Dissects Complex Challenges

There is never a shortage of issues and complex problems to explore in the homeland security arena but finding the people, skills and talent that can give you independent assessments on prospective solutions and facts can be a challenge. That’s where the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC) offers a reservoir of insight and opportunity to help DHS leaders and its components do their jobs. Run by the RAND Corporation, HSOAC was established in 2016 and operates as Federally Funded Research & Development Center (FFRDC) providing research, analysis and solution generation. With offices in Arlington, Va., and Pittsburgh, Pa., HSOAC draws from RAND’s esteemed national and international network of experts to bring concise, comprehensive and independent assessments on topics DHS asks it to explore.

HSToday Editor at Large Rich Cooper spoke with HSOAC’s director, Dr. Terrence Kelly, to learn more about HSOAC’s work and how they are contributing to the homeland security mission.

Q: What is the center’s mission and goals?

A: Some of the most complex challenges facing the U.S. today – from preventing terrorism to managing U.S. borders, enforcing immigration laws, and preventing and responding to disasters – are the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security. To help the department face these challenges effectively, the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (“HSOAC”) FFRDC, which RAND runs for DHS, provides the government with independent and objective analyses and advice. Our mission is to help DHS be more effective in making the nation safe, secure and resilient.

Q: How does it get its “assignments” and who are its customers?

A: Individual projects are funded by DHS components and headquarters offices, who come to HSOAC with a problem they need help solving. Working independently, our experts design and implement a research plan to help project sponsors identify analytic solutions to these problems. We provide this support across the entire department.

Terrence Kelly

Q: Can you describe the research process the center undertakes? It is purely an academic exercise or does the center get out into the field to engage with real-world homeland security practitioners?

A: First and foremost, our process applies the most appropriate research methodology to the questions we are being asked to answer. That said, in most cases this means combining rigorous academic approaches and real-world engagement with the homeland security enterprise. For example, our research teams bring together people with deep methodological expertise, with multidisciplinary expertise, and with operational experience. Second, our research design often combines activities such as literature reviews with field work including practitioner interviews, surveys, and workshops or gaming exercises. Finally, HSOAC strives to make sure our research findings are linked to practical solutions and that they reach decisionmakers and practitioners for whom they will make a difference. For example, we recently worked with the government of Puerto Rico, FEMA and other federal and local agencies to develop a recovery plan for Puerto Rico. The plan identified over 250 specific courses of action – across multiple sectors – that Puerto Rico plans to take to recover from its devastating hurricane season last year.

Q: What are core areas of research for the center?

A: HSOAC focuses on seven areas of research for DHS: acquisition challenges, research and development, innovation and technology acceleration, organizational concerns, operational challenges, and regulatory, doctrine, and policy issues.

Q: To date, what’s been your biggest finding?

A: Our most significant project to date has been helping develop Puerto Rico’s economic and disaster recovery plan for Hurricanes Irma and Maria. That has entailed working closely with FEMA, the government of Puerto Rico, other federal and commonwealth agencies, nongovernmental groups, the private sector, and local communities. The enormous project was mandated by Congress to take no more than 180 days. During that time, we worked with partners and undertook our own analysis to help the government of Puerto Rico create a plan to build Puerto Rico back with a focus on economic growth and resilience. The plan also identifies order-of-magnitude costs, potential funders, and considerations for implementers. The damage and needs assessment that underpins the plan produced literally thousands of pages of peer-reviewed research and analysis that will serve as an analytic foundation for the ongoing recovery efforts. That work will be published in the coming months.

Q: Is there a particular area that the center is anxious to explore for research?

A: One area we are looking forward to helping DHS with is human capital management. Because of the large number of civilian, law enforcement and military personnel who carry out DHS’ missions every day, human capital accounts for one of the department’s largest cost elements. Many of the components have struggled with high turnover rates. The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey indicates issues of staff morale in many offices across DHS. Not surprisingly, a number of the components have identified better management of human capital as a key need. HSOAC can bring the experience and insights gained from decades of RAND research in this area, conducted for a number of federal government agencies, to bear on DHS’ requirements to help them evaluate their organizational culture, understand the factors related to morale, and develop plans to size, recruit, train and maintain an effective and resilient workforce.

Q: What does success look like on a center project?

A: Most importantly, HSOAC measures success by how we are helping DHS fulfill its mission. Are we working on the most important issues? Is the work getting in front of people who make decisions? Is it having influence? This influence could relate to decisions regarding new processes for setting policy (e.g., helping the Joint Requirements Council improve the Joint Requirements Integration and Management System process) or providing new data to support good decision-making (e.g., identifying damage and needs in Puerto Rico to support recovery planning) or providing analyses of options requiring decisions (e.g., options for the U.S. Coast Guard’s cost-estimating workforce).

Q: There seems to be an increasing debate over key findings and facts on any number of issues. How does the center look to avoid being caught up in those fights and stick with “just the facts”?

A: We make sure DHS leaders have the best available facts to make decisions by providing them rigorous, high-quality, independent and objective analysis. Because HSOAC is operated by the RAND Corporation, our researchers adhere to RAND’s core quality assurance principles. These include ensuring that analyses consider related studies and provide the best data and information available; that implications and recommendations are logical, warranted by the findings, and explained thoroughly, with appropriate caveats; and that studies be objective, independent and balanced.

Q: How is this center different from other research organizations that support complex federal mission spaces?

A: What sets HSOAC apart from other organizations is that we are a combination of being mission- focused (not profit-focused), multidisciplinary and solutions-focused. Other organizations working in similar spaces generally represent two of these elements, but not all three. Think of universities (mission-focused and have access to many disciplines, but not necessarily focused on practical solutions created together with practitioners), think tanks (often mission- and solutions-focused, but not widely multidisciplinary), or consultants (may be multidisciplinary and solutions-focused, but are profit-driven). As with the other FFRDCs operated by RAND, HSOAC brings all of these strengths to bear for DHS to produce independent, objective research products that are focused on helping DHS succeed.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is a Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute; a Senior Policy Principal for Homeland Security and Justice at SAS Federal and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. He has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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