Think Tank Perspective: An Interview with Dr. Stephen Flynn
Associate editor Matthew Harwood interviews professor Stephen Flynn, founding co-director of the new George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University.
Professor Stephen Flynn is founding co-director of the new George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University, which assembles private-public multidisciplinary research teams to advance the resilience of critical systems and infrastructure. Previously Flynn was president of the Center for National Policy in Washington, D.C., where he focused on advancing societal and infrastructure resilience. Flynn also spent a decade as a senior fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. An author of two books: The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation and the national bestseller, America the Vulnerable, he is also often asked to testify at congressional hearings. Flynn began his career in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he served on active duty for 20 years.
Why do you hold such hope for social media in creating national resilience, especially when older generations see it as a diversion?
At its core, we can’t achieve the homeland security mission without as much engagement with civil society as possible. And what we know is that the effort to do this in a kind of vertical, top-down way isn’t going too well for lots of reasons. For too long, homeland security, emergency preparedness, and national security professionals have adopted something of an arms-length approach to dealing with civil society when conducting their missions. But the data is overwhelming that when the chips are down, you need the people nearest to you to be involved and to lend a hand to each other. And social media clearly provides this opportunity to decentralize the process of engagement. The tools can be used to get and to correct the facts, but most importantly, to mobilize populations to respond and recover from things. The kind of collective and increasing engagement that I see community resilience and national resilience require would not have been possible 10 years ago. Social media tools are making it possible.
Aren’t you worried that there would be too many voices saying contradictory and confusing things during an attack or a disaster?
There’s no question that social media raises new challenges for how emergency managers have traditionally done their jobs which is to try and rely on authoritative eyes and ears to sort out the facts and issue expert directives. The tower of Babel risk you identify is certainly a real one, but I see mediating factors to that risk. One is that first reports during a crisis are always inaccurate, regardless of the source. Social media shows an extraordinary capacity to correct messaging. When somebody says something wrong, it might take off as a rumor, but there is the ability for folks to come in and say: “The rumor is wrong; here are the actual facts.” And that can be pushed out equally as fast.
But also concrete examples like Deepwater Horizon show the ability for crowd sourcing through social media, where people went out and said “Here’s the oil” and mapped it. That turned out to be a lot more accurate than anything that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Coast Guard, or BP could put together. There just weren’t enough official channels to go out and cover that much geography with any detail. Social media allowed that.
So in the end, emergency managers should be willing to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to harness the power of social media. Then we can have the best of both worlds. We will get the benefit of their experience and expertise along with the vast potential that informed and mobilized citizens can provide to disaster response and recovery.
You were a critic of the Bush administration’s approach to homeland security--that they did not push an all hazards and resilience model-- and believed too often citizens were seen as bystanders. Has the Obama administration changed course? If so, how?
The Obama administration has not changed it far enough. They’re tilting in the right direction, but I think more movement needs to happen more quickly. To the credit of the administration, they’ve embraced the concept of resilience --a public acknowledgement that every act of terror cannot be prevented and some capacity to respond and recover from them is necessary. That’s difficult for political leadership to say, but the president and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano have said it and that’s a necessary dose of reality.
The Obama administration has also gone a bit further than the Bush administration with the all-hazards recognition and the importance of what FEMA’s Craig Fugate calls the “whole community approach.” I give them credit for recognizing that homeland security needs to expand beyond a narrow focus on terrorism risks to include the broader issues of all hazards and that there needs to be a greater degree of outreach and engagement of communities. But there is still so much that needs to be done within DHS and other responding federal agencies to make that engagement real.
Where would you like to see federal funds spent to promote homeland security and resilience?
In general, Washington has been throwing too much money at technology and not enough at human capital and improved processes. One area ripe for investment is risk literacy among the general public. Government at all levels should be far more candid with the public about the nature of the threats, vulnerabilities, and potential consequences that worry them. And it is not just new threats. There is still a lot of work to be done in raising people’s awareness of what risk exposure they have to naturally occurring events such as flooding, tornadoes, earthquakes, and so forth. The risk literacy challenge is significant especially as our population has become more transient. An effort to engage in that I think is very important, and the good news is that it is not very expensive.
Another area that deserves a great deal more investment is supporting civil preparedness programs. Programs like Citizen Corps have been grossly underfunded even though they leverage voluntarism at the state and local levels. But resilience can be advanced by market mechanisms as well. Insurance could play a larger role in discouraging risky behaviors and rewarding tangible steps that reduce a community’s exposure to disruptive risk.
In short, while technology can be helpful, I believe that the greatest potential reward with respect to advancing homeland security comes from engaging citizens, companies, and communities and providing them with tools such as risk literacy, preparedness training, and exercises, and creating appropriate incentives to sustain preparedness over time. A lot of that doesn’t look like the latest sniffers, scanning technology, or law enforcement data management tools. I don’t mean to disparage those tools, but we have overlooked for too long the importance of investing in people.
What are a few key things that a person needs to do to be considered prepared?
Essentially, this boils down to three concentric circles. The outside circle is made up of those who can take care of themselves and their family. The next circle is made up of good neighbors who reach out to the 20 percent of Americans who can’t take care of themselves in a crisis and offer to be their buddy. And the last interior circle are those who are willing to get trained to play a citizen leadership role if things go wrong. While the numbers inevitably go down as you move towards the core, we know from any emergency situation that people will follow the lead of the person who knows what she’s doing. So if one out of every ten people were trained to play that role, we would be in good shape when disasters strike.
You put a lot of faith in the average American to act as a good citizen, prepare for the worst, and help their neighbor when things go bad fast. Why is that?
First, the track record throughout our history is that Americans step up to the plate in times of crisis when asked. I recognize as someone who had a 20-year career as a professional protector that there’s a pride in profession that leads you to believe that emergencies are best left to those of us who have been adequately trained and that well-intentioned amateurs can at times muddy the works. But let’s face it--there’s never enough professionals to go around, particularly in large-scale events.
I have also come to recognize that when people get involved in dealing with risk and threats, they get less afraid, which is really important with dealing with the terrorist threat. Societal resilience has prevention value because the objective of our adversaries is to create the maximum fear and disruption from their attacks. So the less afraid we are and the quicker we can bounce back, the less value terrorism has as a way to attack American society. We end up protecting ourselves that way. And I honestly believe the vast majority of Americans will respond to that call.
You moved from the Center for National Policy to become founding co-director of the new George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University. What do you hope to accomplish there? What homeland security research areas will you focus the institute’s attention?
One of our focuses will be how do we make critical infrastructure more resilient in the face of likely risks. The institute will accomplish this by creating a collaborative and secure environment where researchers from both the hard and soft sciences can work with industry and government officials. Academics can’t operate in a vacuum. They need to interact with the end-users from the public sector and private sector so that innovative solutions can be matched with specific needs and requirements. This is especially the case when it comes to community resilience and infrastructure resilience.
To facilitate this, the institute is set up to handle both open research and also classified work. Our objective is to find solutions that can be widely adopted by community leaders and critical infrastructure owners and operators. We will begin by focusing on the challenges associated with securing the electric grid in the face of the growing cyber threat and participating in initiatives to improve community and campus resilience.