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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

PERSPECTIVE: Making Better Homeland Security Policy Guided by Data and Analytics

If you do any type of work with the government, you hear the word “policy” quite a bit.

It’s one of those words that, depending on whom you talk with, can have a range of meanings. It also can dramatically change depending upon the outcome of an election or a changeover of leadership. Whatever else it may be, policy is what sets a direction for an organization. Policy identifies how actions are intended to proceed; how government personnel should operate as well as detail the respective roles and responsibilities of those who should be involved with policy creation and implementation.

With that in mind, it begs the question: “What makes good policy?”

A question like that will always be debated, especially by those who make policy and those who are impacted by it, because the definition of “good” is subject to widely varying interpretations. Yet in terms of shaping homeland security policies, the underlying policy landscape is on the eve of a profound transformation.

That change will not be driven as much by the traditional makers and influencers of policy: elected officials, presidential appointees, career executives and staff, special interest groups, and issue stakeholders. Rather, it will be the capabilities those people can use to bring about new perspectives and insight to the policy debates, formation and implementation.

The use of data (the fuel) and analytics (the transforming engine) will undoubtedly continue to change the policy landscape. One cannot operate without the other as both items in conjunction with one another have been transforming every industry and issue for more than a decade now. Everything else is modernizing – so should policy. Which is why this evolution to shaping policy should come as no surprise. The Final Report of the U.S. Commission on Evidence Based Policy Making, issued last September, made a strong case for how increased use of data and analytics could help build public confidence in and acceptance of otherwise contentious policy decisions.

Today we generate, collect and consume more data than we realize. As a result, all of us can gather more information to make more-informed decisions than ever before. While political ideology and allegiances will always influence how people see particular issues, bringing additional details and insights to the negotiating table can carry significant weight and influence in shaping the direction and action that policies are intended to address.

Those types of details and insights in the homeland security space can have extraordinary consequences in terms of lives, economies and operations. Every component of DHS has a multitude of capacities to render such impacts. It’s why the policy process is so important. With the right policies in place, mission assignments can be fulfilled, everyone knows what they are to do, and direction and parameters for action are clearly set.

But that is sometimes easier said than done.

For as hard as we may try, no policy will ever be perfect. Policy is ultimately shaped, created and executed by imperfect people who knowingly or unknowingly carry their own opinions, biases and interpretation of facts. Which is why the rise of data and analytics as a solution set to contribute to the policy process presents such enormous potential.

Policy processes governed by less ideology and more facts establish clearer visions of purpose and fulfill their intended goals. That’s where data and analytics (D&A) become the new and essential tools to policy-makers, as well as policy-shapers. This is a world of opportunity where data geeks and policy wonks work together, rather than inhabit remote islands with no interaction.

The better information and details you have, the better your understanding of the decision that is presented before you. For homeland security, those policy decisions can impact visa and immigration applications, which cargo containers come into our ports of entry, the amount of grant awards to states and public safety officials, the shape of hazard mitigation plans, how many lanes to staff and keep open at an airport to screen passengers and luggage prior to flights, and so much more.

As all of us know, making a decision short of having all the details can be a coin toss, a guess, or a go-with-your-gut assumption. That may be fine when looking over a menu in a restaurant but when lives, economies and security operations are at risk, ignorance is a risk not worth taking.

Which is why we’re at a unique moment in time for policy at DHS. Now that policy operation has been raised up within the department (courtesy of Title XIX of the FY 2017 NDAA), with 15 years of operations under its belt, DHS Policy is more than mature enough to take a truly enterprise-level approach to shape and execute better policies to serve the department’s mission.

With that maturity should come two things: ownership and access – especially in terms of the data DHS collects, administers and has access to across the department. While there is “One DHS,” each of the 20-plus components will always have their own cultures, operations and information they collect. As unique as those legacy traits may be, today’s homeland security environment cannot afford individuality that compromises full aperture decision-making. The “Law of Unintended Consequences” is unlikely to apply where rigorous data analysis is a key part of the decision-making process.

Timing, budgets, legislative authorities, jurisdictions, stakeholders (e.g. traditional and non-traditional), economics and more must come together faster than ever before. That’s not just to keep the White House, the Congress, the media or the public informed on what is happening on the border or when a volcano starts to erupt. It’s about having the informed and well-rounded policy construct to mobilize the people, resources and actions to secure the homeland. That is not possible in vacuums, stovepiped environments or islands that don’t connect.

Which is why DHS’ policy environment should be the most agile, scalable and diverse within the federal government. As much as policy makers want to implement policies for the world they “want,” policy implementers that are working at the border, airports, disaster recovery centers, National Special Security Events (e.g., Super Bowl), on our waterways and so forth operate in the world that “is.” There is a tremendous distinction between those two environments. That’s where data and analytics help to close the gap.

Utilizing and leveraging legacy data that every DHS component and issue stakeholder possesses, the DHS Policy shop can better envision as well as model probable costs, impacts and outcomes on any number of mission critical decisions. That means well-intentioned and often educated assumptions can be replaced by quantifiable perspectives to shape and inform executive decisions. Politics will always play a role in policy making but policy making – especially in the homeland security arena – needs to become more apolitical to better serve the common good.

Policy makers have long looked to precedents, court rulings, legislation as well as history when they work to shape new policies or begin work on revisions to what is already on the books. While those steps are still valuable, adding the question “What does the data have to say?” ought to be a new part of the policy-making process.

Congress by instinct does not (nor ever should) trust an executive branch budget submission that is not backed by auditable data that supports the request. Conversely, the executive branch should also be prepared to push back on Congress on legislatively driven policies that are driven more by fears rather than demonstrable facts. Which is why data and analytics provide further “checks and balances” that the framers of the Constitution wanted us as citizens and our government to possess. It is those same “checks and balances” that need to be part of the homeland security policy environment.

As the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making concluded: “Whether making decisions on funding allocations, assessing new regulations, or understanding how to improve processes for efficiently providing services, evidence is needed in every decision made by government officials—career civil servant, political appointee, or elected official. Without the use of evidence in our democracy, we are only guessing at whether government programs and policies are achieving their intended goals.”

Operating with facts makes policy defendable, sensible, adaptable and relevant to a mission space that operates in the most dynamic and complex of environments. Operating without them makes assumptions that lives, infrastructure and communities can ill afford when so much is at stake.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Rich Cooper
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 Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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