Tuesday, August 4, 2009

QHSR – First Dialogue

Yesterday DHS started the public discussion of the first of three public discussions that will form the dialogue portion of the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR). To join in the discussion go to the Homeland Security Dialogue web page and log in. If you signed up for the dialogue when that function was still being handled by the third party website, Scribd.com, like I did, then you might find that you are not registered on the site. Don’t worry about it, you can register on the Dialogue web page. Remember that both your username and password are case sensitive so make sure that your CAPS LOCK key is not engaged when you register. Topic Areas There are six topic areas on this first dialogue and you will find them in prominent colored blocks on the Dialogue web page. The six topic areas are: Counterterrorism and Domestic Security Management Securing Our Borders Smart and Tough Enforcement of Immigration Laws Preparing for, Responding to, and Recovering from Disasters Homeland Security National Risk Assessment Homeland Security Planning and Capabilities There is nothing that says that you have to limit your participation to just one or two of the topic areas. I plan of focusing on the Counterterrorism and Domestic Security Management (CDSM) topic since that will contain most of my interests in chemical security matters, but I also plan on visiting each of the other topics at least once during this first dialogue. These topic areas will carry through each of the three planned dialogues. If this program works the way that it is intended by DHS you should be able to follow the development of the mission, goals and priorities for each of these topic areas through the three dialogues over the next two months. Mission and Goals The first thing that you are going to see in each of the topic areas is a mission statement and a set of goals that support that mission. These have been formulated by study groups formed within DHS. These are the first pass of what some people in DHS think is a description of what DHS should be accomplishing in the topic area and the goals it needs to meet to properly accomplish that mission. Typically these draft statements would be reviewed by the Department leadership who would provide feedback to the study groups who would revise and resubmit the draft statements. After some number of iterations the Department would have an approved mission statement with supporting goals. What QHSR is doing with these dialogues is asking for input from the affected community as part of the review, re-write cycle. The final decision will still be made by the political leadership at DHS, but they will have a wider range of inputs and evaluations to consider. Hopefully, this will provide a better final product. The question that must be asked is why missions and goals? Why isn’t the discussion about policy or regulations? The simple answer is that the development of regulations is controlled by an existing political process that already includes provisions for public input and participation. Missions and goals will guide the department in the development and implementation of future policies that will color the enforcement of those regulations. Finally, the discussion of past, current and future policies will almost certainly become involved in the discussion of mission and goals. After all, how better to illustrate ones arguments than to illustrate them with contemporary examples. The Dialogue The ‘interactive dialogue’ comes in a variety of flavors on each topic page. First one gets to rate the ‘idea’ provided either by the DHS Study Group or one of the other participants in the dialogue. The rating is a simple selection of stars, one to five with five being the highest rating. As is typical for this type of rating (found on a wide variety of web pages) the site automatically tabulates and displays the average rating and the number of ‘votes’. As implied by the description above, the site also provides for the submission of additional ‘ideas’ by the community. These can take the form of comments about, or critiques of the study group provided information, in this case the mission statement and goals. Alternatively, the idea can be suggested alternatives to the study group provided wording or even just a discussion of the issues raised by the study group or one of the other participants. When I looked over the CDSM topic yesterday morning, the number of comments was somewhat manageable and I had the opportunity to review most of the comments that had been posted. With the aggressive way that QHSR Dialogue is advertising the dialogue on Twitter and the support they are getting from bloggers (like myself), DHS agencies and other interested parties, the number of comments will certainly grow well beyond the number that can be casually browsed. The managers of the site have provided a search tool and allow the comment poster and reviewers of comments to ‘tag’ the comments with descriptive terms that should allow for easy review of similar comments. Even so, as new ‘ideas’ are posted to the site they will displace older comments from the more easily browsed section of the site. If the rate of posting new ideas is relatively constant, the number of reviews posted for each new ‘idea’ posted to the site should vary within a fairly narrow range. The original postings by the study group always remain on the page so they will have a significantly larger number of reviews. Manipulating the Dialogue I am not sure why the site organizers included the rating system. I’m sure that they know how easy it is to manipulate such a system. A person or organization that wants to inflate the appearance of support for their position need only record the URL where their comment is posted. Then, they would share that URL with a community of like-minded individuals who would rate that idea exclusively, inflating the number of individuals responding to that particular idea as well as skewing the average rating value. More manipulative commentors would ensure that the members of their community would each have multiple registrations further inflating the numbers. Since there were no ‘humanity checks’ on the registration, a completely shameless manipulation of ratings could be conducted with a bot network owned or operated by a single individual. These manipulations of the dialogue rating system would only affect that system, so an informed observer can ignore obviously inflated ratings. The actual ideas presented are the real key to this process and are much less subject to manipulation. Multiple submissions of the same idea are more difficult to hide; obvious duplication will simply be ignored. A more effective technique would be to use multiple submissions in the form of a discussion or dialogue about the idea. An organization could submit an idea using one registration and then have other members submit weak, straw man arguments against the idea. Strong counter arguments would then be presented. While a discussion of the ideas is what DHS is looking for in this dialogue, a manipulated discussion of this sort may make an idea look better than it really is. The manipulator does need to insure that the straw man arguments are weak and the response is strong or else the observer will be lead to the deficiencies in the argument. Future Discussions I’ll continue to watch this process as it develops this week and post blogs as appropriate. I doubt that I will cover specific issues that are raised here in the blog; instead I’ll provide my input related to issues in the Dialogue. If you’re interested in following those comments you can search ‘PJCoyle’ or ‘Chemical Facility Security News’. Here on this blog I’ll be more focused on process issues. One thing that I will continue to do is to encourage readers to take part in the Dialogue. It isn’t often that individuals can watch and participate in the development of the mission and goals of a Cabinet Department, especially one as important as DHS. Take the opportunity, provide some input, participate.

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