Homeland Security officials at all levels of government would be wise to embrace the concept of human factors. As it relates to this article, human factors applies principles of psychology focused on designing products, plans and environments that enhance desired outcomes. That’s a mouthful and academic-sounding. However, the application is real-world and accounts for what a human being may, and will do, in stressful situations.
In the past, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and community planners have done a poor job of modeling how humans might render a plan useless based on their personal situations or stress condition. The step of accounting for the human ensures a reduction of risks, enhances confidence in instructions and enables the partnerships necessary to meet homeland security goals. A wise and prudent path forward for all planning should incorporate mitigation based on the propensity of humans to, well, just be human.
This concept applies to homeland security planning at the local level as well. During the disaster response efforts where federal, state and municipal responders work in partnership it is critical that each plays their expected role. In 2005 during Hurricane Katrina we witnessed expectations breaking down. Local police departments implemented carefully crafted management plans for disasters, but they did not account for the human factor. In this case, nearly 15 percent of the force, roughly 250 officers, left their posts. Most personnel said they were compelled to care for their families and to ensure the safety of their loved ones.
The absence of response officials when they are most needed is an oversight that jurisdictions make regularly. Recognizing that people will likely ensure the safety of their families before carrying out their official duties is key to a stronger plan. DHS is but one of many agencies who has benefited from carefully orchestrated public-private partnerships. Many of those partnerships are with state partners. Therefore, when one link in the partnership chain breaks, it undermines the strategic approach to national resilience.
The human factor is not always a bad thing and can enable a response effort. The 2017 federal government response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was initially a disaster for many reasons. The people of Puerto Rico assisted each other helping to free trapped citizens prior to rescue officials arriving and the response gaining a stronger footing. The human trait that emerged in the moment was called “spirit of community.” Using the after-actions reporting as a guide, Puerto Rico and other disasters can be studied to create a secondary opportunity for response success. Targeted training across local communities can provide tools that help put community engagement on steroids should the community ever need it.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) leads a Whole of Community Approach to planning. It includes Individuals and families, including those with access and functional needs, businesses, faith-based and community organizations, nonprofit groups, schools and academia media outlets, and all levels of government, including state, local, tribal, territorial, and federal partners. However, it does not account for how they might react and methods to ensure the outcome isn’t negatively affected by, for instance, distrust in government.
Capturing the Audience
The lack of comprehensive regulations around most subsectors of our open society means a plan is only as good as the execution of the strategy on the paper. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has embraced this concept of usability. They recognized that best practices and standards are more likely to be implemented when they make sense to the end-user.
This is just one example of how planning is enhanced when the government includes the end-user’s point of view in risk-management activities. Topics like cybersecurity and the reduction of risks leading to exploitation are greatly affected by strategic messaging that supports behavior modification.
Our election, a pillar of democracy, was attacked in 2016 and again in 2018 contests. The cyber component appears to have been aptly defended and there were few reports of electronic malfeasance against endpoint equipment. However, disinformation and misinformation campaigns may have been factors in the success of undermining these elections. A digital information attack that exploits the biological and emotional reactions of citizens, causing them to take a physical action (influenced voting), is a successful attack. Future planning must account for the lessons learned about human action and how they are influenced or dissuaded to take actions that undercut this important pillar of democracy.
The influence of people and power could be a preview of our future society. As sensors are deployed along every roadway and artificial intelligence mechanisms are embedded in all digital corridors of our lives, dimension jumping will occur more frequently. Most people will react based on the exploitation of their experience. As this starts to occur, people will act as some artificial influence has moved them to act and not the carefully orchestrated design or plan.
This is why leadership is so important. We often look to leaders as a guiding light when information is sparse, contradictory or disturbing. Leadership is critical to move the physical and emotional engines of the people who are required to deliver results sought by government that the person may not have ordinarily subscribed. The key to the government having this power is people must trust in what the government is telling them or at least believe that what they are being instructed to do (1) matters to them, (2) is in their best interest.
We are living an example of influential leadership at this moment. The nation seeks to avoid a coronavirus epidemic leading to a pandemic. This means every word the government says must be trustful to citizens which will enlist positive response from them when the government provides instructions about prophylaxis and response. The government can’t promise 1,000,000 test kits by the end of last week and only deliver 75,000. The president can’t express a different opinion than the well-educated top scientists assigned to management prevention and response.
In this approach to controlling human factors, government officials can’t crucify the media and then plan to use the media to deliver critical news and instructions to citizens. Nobody will listen when partnership with citizens is most critical. This is not partisan; it is reality. Citizens make judgments about the validity of the message from the leader based on experience.
As we face the coronavirus issue the cyber challenge is ongoing to protect digital infrastructure from virus and disruption. Leaders must deal with a large number of Americans who are unmoved by the stealth and tactics of today’s hacker community. The masses are unaware hackers are literally stealing their identities from right under the nose. This is a problem because national security in general will benefit from better societal cyber threat awareness and the increase in citizen cyber hygiene. However, as the government develops more programs for awareness citizens tune out. Why?
I believe a case study of the citizen response can be seen in the approach to messaging cyber threats and the way humans receive the information. Most citizens have never seen a public campaign related to cybersecurity. In general, placards talk about seatbelts, smoking and infant mortality. When there are public messages about cybersecurity, they usually relate to university courses or advertise a defense contractor’s capability. Therefore, the human brain says, “Why should I inconvenience myself to use best practices? It must not be a big deal.” When the government tunes into the human factor the nation will reduce all risks and derive a better return on investment from its well-crafted plans.