Twin cooling towers of the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station in California (U.S. Energy Department photo)

Q&A with Dr. Tom Cellucci: Building Security Through Critical Infrastructure Partnerships

Homeland Security Today sat down with Dr. Tom Cellucci, a Contributing Editor to HSToday and former Chief Commercialization Officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In his years at DHS, Dr. Cellucci worked on numerous topics but always for the purpose of improving the systems and processes we utilize to improve America. During this time he devoted considerable energy to the nation’s critical infrastructure – how we rejuvenate it, protect it, and ensure it is the most advanced in the world.

Recently there has been more attention given to critical infrastructure with several executive orders focused on protecting critical infrastructure to meet the threats posed by advancing technology. Many argue that much of the nation’s infrastructure is in severe disrepair and organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation a D+ on their Infrastructure Report Card back in 2017.

Why is critical infrastructure so critical to homeland security? How do we tackle the massive investments needed to support our nation’s future success and development? Read on to find out one way to leverage the private sector in partnership to build a stronger America.

HSTODAY: You are keenly aware of the nation’s budget constraints and critical infrastructure needs. You advocate for the government to leverage the private sector better — which is something necessary, useful, and beneficial to the economy. What is needed to make this happen?

CELLUCCI: Great question and even better answer: We have already shown through extensive pilots that innovative public-private partnerships described in this article work. Our team was able to accomplish the development of real-world products and services at virtually no cost to taxpayers through our “win-win-win” strategy: win for the U.S. government, as it did not have to spend significant funds to get products and/or services developed when there was a sizable market; win for the private sector as they received detailed operational requirements and Concept-of-Operations (to build against with an estimate of the Potential Available Market); and win for the taxpayers as their hard-earned money was not needed in most cases. President George W. Bush and President Barack H. Obama both not only supported these initiatives but encouraged me to use their names to get things done faster. From a POTUS perspective, these programs are a “no-brainer,” as they are fiscally responsible, enable a much faster speed-of-execution of programs/projects, and are inherently taxpayer positive. Implementing these programs requires the leadership to readjust what is rewarded in government, which I’ll address in your next question.

HSTODAY: What are the challenges to leveraging public-private partnerships better?

CELLUCCI: This is a critical question. The implementation of public-private partnerships that I described requires a mindset change in the government workforce. What do I mean by that? I have the advantage of being both “private sector” as well as former “Govie.” The risk profile of the typical government employees is to sedulously avoid risk, whereas a private-sector employee will often take a calculated risk to gain financial reward. In addition, the “government space,” the difference from a practical standpoint is that a respected “govie” has a big budget and lots of people reporting to them — whereas an accomplished private sector uses as little as possible budget to gain big financial returns. This is why leadership is so crucial to enabling change in the government space. The hardest part of change in the government, from my experience in over 12 years, is akin to losing weight: the hardest part is the “middle.” Government has some great, creative folks who join its ranks every year and there are highly motivated leaders who come into government who want to genuinely create demonstrative results. But there’s a large “middle rank” who wrongly believe that they have worked years to get on a path of a larger budget and more reports without really having to have shown accomplished results. This MUST Change — and that change comes from the highest officials in government (starting with POTUS and the Cabinet) to make it clear that RESULTS will be rewarded, not just longevity and “playing the paper-pushing game.” The good news is these challenges can be overcome faster than one thinks, if you reward the behavior you desire (in this case reward innovative public-private partnerships that save taxpayer money, introduce technologies/products/services in months instead of years and years, etc.).

HSTODAY: What are some of the downfalls? We saw a “craze” of public partnerships a few decades ago and they are not in the fore quite as much. What happened?

CELLUCCI: Another good question: Like most things, they have historically not necessarily been implemented as intended. That’s why t.he word “innovative” is used in front of the public-private partnerships I write about and implemented in the U.S. government. As we know, most processes can be misused and abused. And there is no exemption to more traditional public-private partnerships. Overzealous private entities that do not fully obtain the requirements for a project often build in engineering rev costs, cost over-runs, etc., and government has been know not to fully articulate its requirements in a complete and timely way (remember SBINet?). It’s important — above all — to have a well-thought-out process with checks and balances to get a program on course.

HSTODAY: How can these partnerships help us rebuild our critical infrastructure?

CELLUCCI: When done correctly, these innovative public-private partnerships can save money, time and generate new types of products and capabilities never thought about. The beauty of critical infrastructure is the Potential Available Market (and market segments) are HUGE, garnering the attention of the private sector. I wrote a book on this very subject during President Trump’s first year in office.

HSTODAY: What could the president and Congress be doing right now?

CELLUCCI: POTUS and Congress need to appreciate the need for detailed operational requirements and CONOPS (Concept-of Operations). I literally needed to write three books on this subject when I was in the U.S. government. And I’m not talking about docs that the DoD takes 10 years-plus to develop. It’s like painting a room — the hardest part is preparing the room to paint it, not the actual painting. In the same way, government needs leadership developing, refining and articulating detailed requirements with an estimated (not guaranteed) market potential for the private sector to review in an open and free way.

HSTODAY: Who should lead?

CELLUCCI: POTUS in conjunction with the heads of the private-sector community. It’s been my experience that most CEOs do love their country and want to assist (I often meet the titans of the private sector for POTUS or the Secretary of Homeland Security). They need detailed requirements, and estimated potential market and an open and free competitive system.

HSTODAY: Why is rebuilding our critical infrastructure so important to homeland security?

CELLUCCI: Traveling all over the world, I can attest to the fact that so much of our critical infrastructure and critical resources are outdated, not fully functional, and even antiquated. In addition, from a security point of view, we are much too vulnerable in this area. This is AMERICA — the greatest country on earth. We need to ensure that our citizens and visitors have the most reliable critical infrastructure/systems to perform their activities with the assurance that services/products are secure from both natural and manmade threats, to the fullest extent possible. The advent of so many new technologies and capabilities are well suited to upgrade our “vital organ of our economy.” Because of the inherent value of critical infrastructure, it is a constant target by the “bad folks” and MUST be protected and secure.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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