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It’s official – the National Applications Office (NAO) is DOA.  Yesterday’s official announcement by DHS put the period on the end of a sentence that a lot of us have seen written for some time.  The disappointing part of this entire affair is that Sec. Napolitano made the only decision she could given the circumstances that were handed to her.

The NAO and what it could do truly had the potential to be a game-changer for DHS and the entire homeland security community for a number of very positive and Constitutional reasons, but its ham-handed development and subsequent execution doomed it from the start.

Why?

Here are four reasons:  Politics; Communications Failure; Lack of Stakeholders; and Culture.

Politics: When it was first introduced in 2007, the architects of NAO stated it would be providing imagery and related products “from government-owned, space-based assets for domestic law enforcement purposes.”

To utter these words in a post-Patriot Act and toxic political environment of late 2007 and Election-year 2008, especially in the wake of reports of surveillance and interrogation abuses was tantamount to hanging the world’s biggest ”Kick Me” sandwich board sign over your body and putting yourself between two chorus lines of Rockettes.

There was absolutely no political sensitivity as to what these words said or how they would be translated and perceived by either political party or the public at large.  As such, critics, bloggers, civil libertarians, politicians, conspiracy theorists and more were quick to label the NAO and its use of government owned, space-based assets as a “double-plus good” tool of the black-van driving 1984 Orwellian cadre that they saw running intelligence programs at DHS and other intelligence agencies.  The NAO then became a political football that could be easily tossed about by critics of the Bush Administration to highlight the “abuses” they saw allowed under their leadership.

The NAO architects didn’t help themselves either by slow-rolling Congressional critics, specifically, Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) in promptly and effectively responding to their concerns about the NAO.  The quickest way to annoy any Member of Congress is to appear to ignore them, blow them off or move forward on a program even after they’ve gone on the record as saying, “NO WAY!”  The NAO did all three.

Communications Failure: There is a simple rule in sales – if you want a customer to buy something, you have to convince them what you offer is worth their money.  The NAO never did that.  When it came to selling the NAO, their failure to effectively communicate only complemented their politically tone-deaf tin-ear.

Stating you are going to use “government owned, space-based assets for domestic law-enforcement purposes” is about as popular as inviting a family of skunks to a garden wedding in June.  Nobody wants you!

I am amazed that when the words were first used to describe the purpose of the NAO that someone didn’t stop and say, “Hey guys. Wait a minute.  Are you sure that’s a smart thing to say?”

Obviously they didn’t because what went out to describe the NAO went out without fully grasping what was being said or how it would be heard.

If the NAO’s architects had come out and said, “We want to use government owned, space-based assets to enhance federal, state, local and tribal emergency planning, preparedness and response efforts for all hazards,” there is a very good chance that the NAO might still be alive today.

They didn’t, and you can see the results.

Instead of embracing a bigger, more holistic picture of the NAO’s potential contributions, its architects embraced a very narrow and highly sensitive area (law enforcement purposes) that scared the hell out of its potential customers (state, local and tribal governments) and the very citizens that NAO sought to protect and serve.

Not until the incoming salvos and appropriately tough questions from the Congress, civil liberties groups and others about the NAO came in, was their mention of hurricane and other all-hazard preparedness that the office could contribute.

Instead the NAO messengers decided to lead with the “domestic law enforcement” line in their initial messaging and as a result they could never recover from what was a politically insensitive and untenable mission statement.

Remember the adage, “You only get one chance to make a first impression?”  This case proves it again.

Another communications failure was DHS’ unwillingness to be proactive about the NAO and what it could do.  I know of several invitations that went to DHS to come out and speak about the NAO; its value and what it could.  All were turned down.

If you won’t come out and proactively speak (sell) or publicly defend a program or its intent, you cede the arena of debate and ideas to your critics. As such their voices and perspective are the only ones that are heard.

Additionally if you are one of those persons or groups on the sidelines who believed in the NAO and its purpose why would you put yourself out there to defend and champion something that DHS seemed unwilling to proactively do themselves?

Lack of Stakeholders:
One of the primary reasons an idea, program or cause wins in Washington or anywhere is because of those persons and groups who come together to champion it.  We see it daily in the health care debate that is going on right now.  People with similar beliefs come together to champion something they believe and want to make happen.

Can you name any stakeholder group that championed for the NAO?

I know there were intelligence personnel (current and retired) that believed in the NAO, but when it came to identifying stakeholder groups from trade associations, professional societies and other like-minded advocacy groups that were willing to voice their support for it, the silence on the NAO was deafeningly silent.

In looking back over the NAO history, there seemed no overt effort to develop such stakeholders who could engage in the battle of ideas about the office’s value or help cultivate support for it.  If you don’t have these stakeholders, the only voices – those of your critics (informed and uninformed) are the only voices that are heard.

The critics of the NAO made their voices (both sound and unsound) heard at decibel blasting volumes.  In a politically charged environment, it is these voices that make the quotable quotes that the media and blogosphere gobble up and perpetuate time and again.  That makes them the defacto winner whether they are right on an issue or not.

Having previously worked with a number of companies and personnel in the geospatial industry that serve both private sector as well as public sector customers (including the intelligence and military communities), I know they were not approached to weigh in on supporting the NAO.  If they had engaged them I know for a fact a number of them would have said to the NAO architects, “Hey guys. Wait a minute.  This office can serve a broader and better purpose than just law enforcement purposes.  We should know because we serve those interests every day.”

Take a look at the work that Digital Globe and GeoEye do.  Take a look at Google Earth and Virtual Alabama.  These companies and products as well as others are already finding acceptance by the American public in lots of ways and rather than learn from those lessons, the NAO architects decided to take the one path, laden with political land mines and skip all the way down it.

When DHS uttered its initial messaging of using government-owned, space-based assets for law enforcement purposes and it caused an uproar, these companies as well as the prospective consumers and users of NAO products and services (state, local and tribal governments), backed away entirely from wanting anything to do with the NAO.

All you have to do is read the letter from LAPD Chief, William Bratton and Major Police Chiefs Association about the NAO to see their unwillingness to embrace the NAO as it was formed.  Besides being completely unengaged in the NAO’s formation, these law enforcement stakeholders were not about to volunteer to stand in-front of firing squad of politicians, critics, bloggers, media and others to defend a program or office that would only cause them further headaches and angst for the baggage it brought with it. They have enough problems and aren’t looking for more.

Culture:
I do not doubt for an instant the patriotism or contributions of the often unappreciated and under-acknowledged service of anyone at DHS now or previously.  All of them serve in difficult situations in protecting what we all hold dear as a nation.  They are all patriots looking to do what they can to secure the homeland but in serving that mission there must also be a culture awareness of the need to look, listen, learn and engage from those communities outside of your traditional operational environments when forming any program or activity that serves interests outside of your own.

In the intelligence community it has been the long-held cultural norm to restrict or limit what information is shared with other parties.  That is more than understandable for security reasons but as a result, operational (cultural) silos are formed that often prevent information sharing and collaboration with parties outside of that silo.  We know today this is one of the failures that allowed the 9/11 attackers to go unnoticed until it was too late.  Since that day, tremendous changes and reforms have occurred in the intelligence and law-enforcement communities and as a result and information sharing between these parties has improved dramatically.

Beyond the information sharing though is the need to improve how efforts like the NAO are designed, developed and executed.  We can not expect programs or efforts developed in insular silos to effectively serve their mission.  Based upon the forensics of the NAO debacle, we have a pretty good idea that it was formed in a silo and as result, its overall lack of acceptance and subsequent termination was a foregone conclusion.

That’s the shame of this entire experience.  The technologies, products and services that could come from an NAO-type of office could be a tremendous asset to the homeland mission in a multitude of areas that go far beyond “domestic law-enforcement purposes.”

God knows there are public and private sector members and average American citizens who could have benefited from them.  If given the chance, a number of them would have even been willing to publicly support efforts to create them.  That won’t happen now, at least not under a name such as NAO.

With any luck leadership at DHS will learn from this and develop an office or a program in the future that is cognizant of the politics of the day; knows how to communicate and cultivates stakeholders along the way to serve the homeland mission that we need fulfilled.

Those are parts that were forgotten about when the NAO was formed and with any luck DHS won’t forget about them again any time soon.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More