THE MAGAZINE

State Perspective - Colorado

By Joseph Straw

Q. What’s been the biggest challenge?

A. I think the biggest challenge has really been the pace of operations. Nothing stopped as a result of us having all these changes. The grant programs have continued, we’ve had to manage the grants as we’ve tried to revamp the operations and processes for the grant administration programs. As we’ve developed the strategy there’s been no letup in terms of having to prepare and plan for all these natural disasters that happen. So it’s really just the pace of operations has continued and so it hasn’t taken into consideration that we’re trying to stand up a whole new office and that we’re trying to develop a whole new strategy, and implement a whole new strategy, and then essentially change a lot of culture in terms of how we’ve operated over the years in the state of Colorado. It’s kind of like trying to build a whole new caboose on a train while it’s going 60 mph.

Q. How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change if you could?

A. Well, I’ve dealt with the federal government for a long time, and the National Guard has had one foot in the federal government and one foot in the state government because we have national security mission as well as a state emergency response mission. I think we’ve got an excellent relationship with our federal partners, especially the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). I think our FEMA Region VIII folks have really done a great job of reaching out to support the states in their preparation and mitigation activities. The FEMA Region VIII guys, as far as I’m concerned, have been doing a tremendous job in supporting and helping out the states that they’re responsible for. DHS as well. We’ve got good folks up there that are doing the best they can to keep the programs reasonable and realistic and understanding that every time they throw a requirement on us, it’s just, one more log on a fire there that really kind of burns a little bit too hot for us sometimes. So they’re very, I think, considerate about doing that.

The thing I would change that I think really needs to be changed is, hopefully with this new administration that’s coming in, is a little more collaboration, in fact a lot more collaboration on building grant guidance for the states for HSGP. When the grant programs started in 2002, the mentality was kind of “get the money out there as fast as you can,” because we’ve got terrorist activity that could be just around the corner, so the country had to build this huge infrastructure and organization piece all at once. And so there was a lot of money that was thrown at the states during that time and of course not much guidance on how to spend that, and the states were kind of at a loss in some cases as to how to manage that as effectively as they should have. And so I think we have a much better program now in how we’re managing those kinds of grants that have occurred, but what I think has happened in the meantime is that we’ve become more mature in the states now in terms of how we manage those programs and how we have implemented our strategies and to the point that, you know, we now understand what is required for a specific state in order to be as prepared as possible for those things that will happen and may happen. And so we tend to do a pretty good job of prioritizing those things.

And I think what happens unfortunately, though, at the DHS level, is they work with Congress to try to figure out what they think the best thing is for the states with no really in-depth knowledge about what each state needs and what the requirements are. They’re just trying to do a cookie-cutter approach that simply says “one size fits all” and that’s just not the case. That’s not something that is easily managed out there by the states or by the federal government for the states. So I think there needs to be much more collaboration in building the grant guidance that goes into how this money is spent at the state level and to give more flexibility to the states to be able to determine what the priorities are. Basically the priorities are driven by DHS and Congress. Congress really kind of, they get involved it, to a certain extent, but overall DHS dictates pretty much to Congress what the priorities are going to be, and you know then Congress appropriates the money and the next thing you know we’ve got this grant guidance that comes out that shoves things down the states’ throats that sometimes, you know, aren’t their priorities. But yet they have to go out and spend the money on these things that DHS has determined are their priorities. So if there is collaboration in building that grant guidance to start with, I think we’re much better off in terms of spending that money effectively at the state level.

I just got back from a governor’s homeland security advisors’ council that normally meets about twice a year, and we met in Monterrey, California, that’s where the Naval Postgraduate School is and of course they’ve got a big homeland security program there. But the advisors, that was the big items that we talked to the transition team for President-elect Obama for homeland security was we really need to get that collaboration piece put into the process and built into grant guidance up-front, before the grant guidance comes out to the states. What happens now is the grant guidance is built, and then there’s a comment period for a couple days that DHS sometimes allows you to take part in, and then they send it out. And most of the times they ignore the input. At least that’s what I’ve seen. Of course I’ve only been in this business for a year and a half. So, you know, it’s just something that they need to fix.

Q. How do you feel about the appointment of a former state Governor as the next Secretary of Homeland Security?

A. I think that’s an excellent choice, absolutely. Who better to know what the state requirements are better than a governor. And so absolutely. I think there are a lot of governors out there that could have been candidates for that, although I don’t know Gov. Napolitano very well, I do know the adjutant general of Arizona very well and of course he speaks highly of her, and I know that she’ll probably do a great job in that position.

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