It’s not at all unusual for a Hollywood celebrity to make an appearance on Capitol Hill. Whether they are advocating for a particular cause or issue, their public visibility has the ability to shine a greater light on a particular subject matter than what might otherwise be offered. That’s why I greet the news that Oscar winner Kevin Costner is serving as a witness before the House Homeland Security Committee with some cautious enthusiasm.
At the Wednesday hearing, “DHS Planning and Response: Preliminary Lessons from Deepwater Horizon,” Mr. Costner will be just one of several witnesses that hopefully will provide some lessons learned from what has been and continues to be the disaster with no end – the Gulf oil spill. Let me say at the outset that I am not a Kevin Costner groupie; nor do I find huge intellectual goldmines coming from the prepared testimony or oral statements of celebrities, but Costner could change my mind.
To those who think that the choice of Costner as a witness to this hearing is unusual, I beg to differ. Costner is probably the perfect person to appear at this hearing. For those who followed the Gulf oil spill closely, this past spring, Costner was doing everything he could to bring a solution to the enormous problem of oil in the Gulf waters. Spending 15 years in development and $24 million of his money, Costner and his partners developed a technology that could separate the oil out of the water and clean affected areas.
According to the various media accounts that saw the system in action, Costner’s efforts lived up to their hype. The challenge he had (a challenge shared by so many other technological entrepreneurs who had similar types of technology solutions) was navigating the bureaucratic channels to get the system noticed and deployed. In short, the bureaucracy proved to be almost more problematic than the actual disaster. While oil continued to wash onto shorelines and saturate marshlands, numerous solutions had to sit in-land, fighting to get a chance to make a difference.
Costner’s problem is not unique. It was something I saw and experienced multiple times during my time at DHS, especially during disasters. During the height of the Katrina response, I can’t remember how many different people I encountered or spoke with who had real, tangible and workable solutions to address some of the most pressing problems. Unfortunately, because they weren’t already “in the system” with a litany of other random approvals, and because there was no real mechanism to deploy them into the situation, they never got the chance to perform and make a difference.
In defense of the bureaucracy, I understand that we can’t just let every Tom, Dick and Harry with an invention into a disaster area to try things out. There are rules and safeguards that have to be considered. There is also the fact that for every legitimate new technology and device that could solve a problem, there are a matching number of whack-jobs wearing foil-wrapped funnels on their heads, having recently escaped from their mother’s basement and are convinced they too could fix the same problem and answer all of your questions about alien landings at Roswell, New Mexico as well.
To BP’s credit, they at least set up an online system where potential solutions could be submitted to them for consideration and potential deployment. Out of the thousands of submissions they received, several hundred were actually used. While it’s not easy to give BP credit for anything, their efforts in these areas seemed to far surpass our own government’s ability to inject new technologies and solutions to address 2010’s biggest disaster.
And that is what I hope Kevin Costner has to say. We cannot begin to address the breadth of our homeland security problems if we allow our bureaucracies and affiliated rules and procedures to be the barriers to real solutions. While we can’t begin to know what all of our threats and risks might be or how they might unfold or impact us, we surely can do a better job of finding an entry way for new solutions to address dynamic circumstances.
Costner was one of the fortunate people who got his solution noticed and deployed. His celebrity certainly helped him do that, but not every inventor or entrepreneur has an Oscar sitting on their mantle or Waterworld on their resume. Whether he wants to or not, Costner can give voice to the solution providers on the sidelines who want to help their country in all of its various hours and circumstances in need.
From the guys with the hay that can absorb oil, to all of the other solutions that we did or did not see, we need to do a better job than we have demonstrated of late in being able to adapt to dynamic conditions. We cannot allow bureaucratic processes to take precedent over real and potential solutions. These solution sets are more notable than any Oscar-winning performance, but maybe it will take an Oscar winner to give the inventors and entrepreneurs the means and mechanisms to be able to perform in the hours when we need them the most.