It’s been a little more than a year since Admiral Thad Allen (USCG-Ret.) joined Booz Allen Hamilton as a senior vice president after a storied career with the U.S. Coast Guard, and serving as National Incident Commander for the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
Breaking Gov contributor Dan Verton sat down with Allen to discuss the importance of innovation and the challenges frontline federal government managers face when trying to implement new innovations. He also discussed some of the priorities for the future of homeland security outlined recently by Booz Allen Hamilton, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Breaking Gov: How important is the concept and practice of innovation to the Department of Homeland Security as we look toward the next 10 years of the homeland security mission?
Adm. Thad Allen: I don’t think there’s any doubt that innovation has been the key to the success of this country since our revolution. The ability to innovate, create new things and bring them to market progress the country along.
I think the real issue is how do you enable innovation in a government department or across the government? How quickly can you recognize technologies and bring them to bear on the problems you’re dealing with?
We have a whole host of regulations and federal acquisition regulations. We’re concerned about who we sell business to in the federal government. There are groups that we want to help and encourage, such as small business and the middle class. We need to figure out a better way to identify innovative capabilities that we can bring to bear in the homeland security area.
I don’t think right now the current acquisition procedures or requirements development procedures are mature to the point where we can move as rapidly as we need to.
Is it just the acquisition side of the equation, or is it the federal culture that does not encourage innovation from frontline managers?
Allen: The whole notion of innovation is a challenge across the government. What you have is a set of regulatory requirements that take time [and] they’re difficult to work through for new and challenging technologies. And then there’s a question of whether or not the people in government are technically qualified to understand those new technologies.
I think there’s a dual challenge. One is a process challenge. How do we make the process simpler? But there’s a content challenge. If you don’t understand the technology regarding cloud analytics [as an example] or what a cloud reference architecture can do, or what high performance computing can do, then you don’t make real good decisions about the acquisition of technology or make policy and budget decisions that enable that.
Are efforts such as the FedRAMP process helping agencies to innovate and adopt new technologies?
Allen: In the current budget environment, we can’t afford to have multiple stovepipe systems, multiple licensing fees, and multiple costs for software platforms. The downward force on funding is going to force the integration of software and data sets.
Then, once you get them in one place, it’s easier to make a fundamental change in how you actually manage the data. It’s something we’re going to have to do and it’s going to be required for mission execution.
More importantly, I don’t think we can operate the systems we’re operating right now and stovepipe them in proprietary systems in the current budget environment.
Our theory is, it takes a network to defeat a network.”
How do you see future of Homeland Security changing?
Allen: I believe terrorism is nothing more than political criminality; so you’re really dealing with a criminal organizations involved in criminal activity. The things all criminal organizations need to succeed is …they need to have a source of financing, they have to talk, they have to move, and they have to spend money to be successful. That is a network.
When you look at our law enforcement organizational structure and how we deal with terrorism, we tend to focus particular threat streams on particular agencies, and that’s how we employ them, like the Drug Enforcement Administration; (the Bureau of) Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the US Secret Service; Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Our theory is, it that takes a network to defeat a network. And if we’re going to do that properly, we’re going to have to break down the walls between those jurisdictions, particularly with regards to how we share information.
Read more from Thad Allen in an op-ed he wrote for Breaking Gov last year on the importance of separating the value of public service from the politics.