People First Homeland Security: Recalibrating for Community Collaboration & Engagement within a Homeland Security Ecosystem

pdfAngela Yvonne English

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Since the creation of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002, the practice of homeland security has been constructed around a top-down system, reactive in nature, based primarily on responding to terrorist acts and natural disasters. When security becomes a reactive enterprise, pursued only after threats become manifest, the effort ends up being costly, ugly, and largely ineffective. Americans do not expect their lives to be risk-free and have proven themselves to be up to the task for playing an important role in securing the homeland. Today, a paradigm shift is occurring through emerging technologies and adaptive community systems that can provide some insight into the nation’s future resilience. The homeland security enterprise has become so locked within a problem-centered, critique-driven worldview that it has severely limited its potential for innovation and transformation.

Utilizing an appreciative inquiry framework, examining the nation’s strengths and assets, its people and communities, could strengthen its future homeland security system. This shift from a deficient and lessons learned discourse to an appreciative inquiry discourse means this nation pivots from looking backwards at mistakes to being proactive and building a system of resiliency for the future based on the strengths of communities.

The homeland security enterprise wants people in their communities to be resilient, by adapting to, withstanding, and recovering from disaster. However, some consideration should be given to understanding the human systems in communities that help build strength and lessen vulnerabilities. With complicated or successive crises, sustained engagement with the actual community is needed. The top-down, one-size-fits-all-hazards approach falls short every time. Moving from an “all hazards” plan to an “all-opportunities” plan is needed to move the country forward collectively. Historically, the federal government has held a paternalistic attitude toward its citizens and the security apparatus is one of a patron-client relationship. Perversely, in many quarters, ordinary citizens are viewed as part of the problem rather than the solution, which is firmly in the purview of the homeland security professionals. Instead of individuals and communities bouncing back, a forward-looking homeland security helps communities before disasters by building on their strengths so they can flex and adapt more readily to any challenges that come their way. In this way, the homeland security community and the communities it serves evolves into an ecosystem.

The fact is that the homeland security enterprise was intended to be more of an ecosystem, composed of sub-systems, all of which are connected in some way, although it still functions primarily in a linear way. In an ecosystem, awareness of the other parts of the system is important, versus just knowing one part in isolation. In a systems approach, inclusion and participation are vital, welcomed, and necessary. It is a movement away from events and objects to relationships and connections. The connective tissue of the homeland security body is community, community within the enterprise and outside of it.

As U.S. demographics are changing, so too are the technological advancements in social media and social network applications for collaboration like the nation has never seen before. This new “sharing” environment offers numerous opportunities for ordinary Americans to interact in the homeland security enterprise. Communities are complex systems with the ability to organize without the benefit of an outside entity. This complex adaptive system is characterized by a large number of interconnected parts that provide challenge and opportunity. Traditional organizations, traditional forms of control and planning, are minimally effective for complex threats. Today’s world is becoming increasingly complex. Unfortunately, this nation’s style of thinking rarely matches this complexity.

The increase in social connection and demographic diversity allows for a more nuanced and creative bottom-up approach to homeland security. The lesson for the homeland security ecosystem is that the geopolitics of governmental proximity is important. Power is becoming more centralized at the local level. Mayors and local authorities manage community proximity very differently because it is easier on a smaller scale and it is more personal to the community. It is important for those in homeland security to understand that to ignore the dynamics of geopolitical proximity, changing migrations, demographics and will of the people, do so at their peril.

Interestingly, disaster after disaster, both big and small, citizens are taking matters into their own hands to provide for their safety, families, neighbors, and community. Appreciative inquiry’s capacity building process seeks to identify a system’s strengths, which a proactive social construction of reality can be tied to cooperative acts. These two dynamics hold the promise to move away from constantly correcting lessons learned to imagining a future based on the systems strengths and then actively designing a system that fits the challenge. The social construction of knowledge is based on the words, language and acts chosen within the community. This kind of knowledge is developed and transferred into a kind of general understanding and over time into sustained behavior. For a community, if social construction joins hands with its sister, appreciative inquiry, great potential exists for change. The human-centric trait of cooperative acts and desire to help is a valuable part of the nation’s strengths and assets, and a powerful resource for the future homeland security ecosystem. Additionally, all communities have positive deviants, catalysts, and connectors, and those who have profound social influence in communities. The key is to identify them and utilize their positive deviance for social change within the community. In examining homeland security’s biggest challenges, those that are decentralized, unpredictable and complex, utilizing people, peer-to-peer connections and the share, then gather mindset is profoundly powerful. Whether it is food, transportation or shelter during a disaster, mustering the potential of the social dynamics of people could greatly foster resiliency at the most basic level without any government assistance. It will also require open communication.

The power of language is transformational. A new social construction of homeland security will require a change in the language used to be more inclusive and welcoming to the community, to both internal and external customers. Every community, through its language, cultural diversity, and local actions socially constructs its environment. It is in this context that the homeland security enterprise can use social network analysis of existing social networks in the community to leverage the strengths of the community. Social networks are powerful human systems. Social networks have a profound ability to influence the thinking and behavior of people within the networks. Human beings self-organize into groups, communities, civilizations, and economies as a response to collective needs or threats.

The thesis explores the nation’s demographics, social dynamics, language and social networks to posit that its greatest resource is people.

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