Regional approaches get thumbs-up

DHS National Capital Region information

Homeland Security Department officials must overcome barriers at every level to successfully safeguard the nation with a regional approach. That's the view of policy officials who are leading efforts to organize public safety responses to potential terrorist attacks.

A regional approach to homeland security has been a major part of DHS officials' strategy since the department's creation. Regional organizations can offer better prevention and responses through targeted coordination. Concerns in one part of the country can differ from concerns in another part of the country, said Dan Kaniewski, deputy director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at the George Washington University.

The Washington, D.C., region, "one that has a federal presence, one that has three very different political jurisdictions ...is not the same as in Texas," Kaniewski said. Texas has "border issues that we don't have to contend with," he said, speaking at an Oct. 5 event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.

Some state officials have Canadian border concerns, while others have seaport issues, all of which create a compelling need to look at homeland security from a regional perspective, he said.

Circumstances differ in every section of the country, and even within a single region, the risks and threats change enough to require shifts in policies and resources, said John Cohen, Massachusetts' homeland security policy adviser.

Massachusetts officials have set up preparedness regions within the state and also have formed regional partnerships with other states, including New York, Maine and Delaware. "It's not just because we're neighbors with each other but [because] we share many of the same problems that we have to face," Cohen said.

Developing regional responses might finally get under way now that a fiscal 2005 appropriations bill for DHS has passed both houses of Congress. The bill contains more than $200 million for administrative and regional operations in the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate. The conference report also encourages DHS officials to create regional offices to support the National Incident Management System and includes other language focusing on regional efforts.

The conference report, however, also requires DHS officials to notify lawmakers 10 days before taking any action to consolidate existing regional offices. That congressional involvement and potential for interference could create barriers to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge's efforts to create a regionally focused organization for homeland security preparedness, said Dick Armey, former House majority leader.

One of the first regional organizations is the National Capital Region, which includes Washington, D.C., and parts of Maryland and Virginia. Home to the federal government, the region has many special features that other parts of the country lack.

However, officials in other regions can follow the model of the National Capital Region's governance structure and the experience of its officials in building that structure, said George Foresman, Virginia's deputy assistant to the governor for commonwealth preparedness.

Foresman said governance is at the heart of any regional effort. Until all players share a common governance structure, use the same language and adopt the same priorities, nothing can be accomplished, he said. The governance challenge is further complicated by legal issues, including differences in states' liability statutes.

Knowing that the results of shared governance contribute to the common good isn't always enough to push people to the goal, he added. "It's easy to say you want to do regionalism; it's phenomenally difficult to go from concept to completion," he said.

Starting from scratch in preparing for regional threats can have both positive and negative consequences, homeland security experts said.

"The great challenge that we face in looking at regional collaboration and regional cooperative efforts is to respect the regional boundaries that exist across multiple functions of government, across multiple activities in the private sector, and build those into a collaborative environment where we can take a target and risk assessment and apply it in a reasonable and an equitable manner," Foresman said.

Cohen agreed to an extent. "We tried to, as much as possible, take into account current, existing regional structures" in Massachusetts, he said. "But at the end of the day, direct vulnerability and risk were what drove how we structured the state planning, how we distributed our funds and how we tasked the regional planning entities to work together in developing their strategies for their region."

Armey: No place for politics

Dick Armey left the House in January 2003 after spending nine sessions in Congress, including the last three as majority leader. As he repeatedly said to an audience at the Heritage Foundation earlier this month, he is not running for re-election, and therefore, he feels free to voice his opinions, especially on the advantages of a regional approach to homeland security. Armey's main point was that congressional leaders should step out of the way.

"Congress has got to let the executive branch organize itself in this area," he said. "You're putting together a system here where you have open sharing of information locally that's always directed toward the service of the mission. I think you've got to first solve that in the agency, and that depends upon congressional acceptance of the right of the secretary to organize the agency without congressional interference."

Armey went on to say, "'Wouldn't it be loverly' if you could actually get the various representatives of regions to go to their congressional delegation and say, 'We would like to have you support the secretary's efforts to do this.'"

— Diane Frank

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