Ask the Expert: In terms of homeland security resilience, how do we
 navigate the path from theory to practical application?

November 1, 2013
By Kenneth P. Rapuano

Any direction requires difficult choices.

The recent emphasis on “resilience”—the homeland security equivalent of mission assurance—is overdue and much needed. However, it involves fundamental challenges with which we are still grappling in our efforts to achieve a more resilient nation.

The concept of mission assurance, the continued functioning or rapid reconstitution of key mission capabilities across a wide range of degradations, is very familiar to those with military exposure. However, the domestic application of this idea did not occur until after 9/11. And, it was not until several years following that terrorist attack that the concept of resilience received significant attention.

The new emphasis on resilience represents a welcome paradigm shift. It recognizes what many homeland security practitioners long have known, and some policy makers had been reluctant to acknowledge publicly—that not all threats are preventable. So, efforts must focus on bolstering the capability to maintain essential functions through adverse circumstances—and rapidly reconstituting them when that is not possible. The argument for building domestic resilience is widely embraced by the homeland security enterprise, and it now is enshrined in presidential directives and planning frameworks. However, in key respects, achieving resilience is more demanding than traditional protection efforts. It requires more holistic planning and harder choices than we are used to.

At its core, national resilience balances the symbiotic relationship between the resilience of the public at large and the resilience of the physical and organizational systems that provide for the essential needs of the nation and society. The inherent challenge to achieving resilience lies in the complexity of these interfaces and interdependencies between a variety of “hard” and “soft” systems. The hard systems are represented by the critical infrastructure—the combination of physical systems and institutions that provide essential services supporting the nation and the public. The soft systems comprise the public, along with the societal and cultural dynamics that enable and drive behaviors that determine individuals’ and communities’ resilience to adversity.

Critical infrastructure resilience must be calibrated and aligned with the expectations and capabilities of the public that relies on it. If these elements are not in sync, national resilience cannot be achieved.

While easy enough to explain, this requirement is extremely difficult to achieve. It involves the need to harmonize physical infrastructure capabilities with communities’ expectations and capabilities for hazards, which can range from routine to catastrophic. Ultimately, it requires tough choices for defining and aligning acceptable levels of risk. This includes weighing the capacity of critical infrastructure to withstand or recover from traumatic events with the public’s willingness and ability to prepare both mentally and materially.

The complication is that motivating the public to prepare for situations not recently experienced—or those perceived to be unlikely—is extraordinarily challenging. In the absence of real-world calamities that change risk perceptions, the homeland security enterprise has two choices: try to educate the public; or take into account the implications of low public-risk perception and preparations in the development of enterprise-level resilience. Studies have shown it is difficult to artificially produce heightened perceptions of risk, so the second option seems most viable.

It will require an enterprise systems-based approach to achieve enhanced national resilience. This approach must identify the most critical operations and the range of threats and conditions they may face. Resiliency planning involves next-level awareness of the interrelationships and interdependencies between systems and approaches—either for mitigating effects or for enabling reconstitution of vital functions.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as well as the larger homeland security enterprise, still is in a relatively early phase of operationalizing resilience. Accordingly, one of the most immediate challenges will be widening the aperture of many DHS components that still focus only on addressing specific mission functions for which they are directly responsible rather than on the system as a whole. These stovepipes within the department, and other elements of the wider enterprise, must be connected better to increase awareness of the interdependencies and cascading effects between different functions that are critical to developing resilient systems.

An increased emphasis on resilience undoubtedly provides the best approach to developing affordable and sustainable capabilities for the nation to withstand and recover from a range of threats. Going forward, the challenge is to take a systems approach to identifying and aligning the interdependencies within critical infrastructure, and with the public as a whole, to achieve national resilience.

Kenneth P. Rapuano is the director of Advanced Systems and Policy at The MITRE Corporation, focusing on cross-cutting strategic initiatives in homeland security and national security. Prior to joining MITRE, Rapuano served at the White House as deputy homeland security adviser to the president from 2004 to 2006.


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