James Walker is the Director of Alabama’s Department of Homeland Security and presented the first keynote of this week’s event. He offered us a “conversation,” which I confess was one-sided but 100% without notes and riveting. He told a story that included politics, money, anecdotes and success. He’s clearly one of those people who knows how to get his point across in a low-key but exceptionally clear way. I guess that’s why he’s been so successful here. He’s been director since 2002 and like all members of the Alabama Governor’s cabinet stayed on, with the governor for a second term.
You can tell he’s a sharp guy because when he was appointed he didn’t know anything about homeland security. The governor told him “he’d figure it out.” He noted the governor’s plan to get economic growth “going” before his term ends in 2010. Further, said Walker, he and his peers in the cabinet need to get their plans ingrained and set the bar high such that the citizens of Alabama expect and receive no less from the next administration.
Here’s the story. It starts with money. In Alabama state money goes into two pots: one for education and one for the general fund. As more money comes into the state more money goes to education (with some fine results - like the biggest gain in the U.S. of 4th grade reading scores). But money in the general fund, which funds everything else, is basically flat. That he argues means that to get things to happen in “everything else,” every other department must look to federal funding and work together. That doesn’t sound too hard as he notes “We [the cabinet] like each other and we like our boss [the governor].”
One challenge in the agencies and services funded from the general fund is there are “haves” and “have nots.” For example, he notes, when the US DHS asked counties what they needed to meet local security needs the state of Alabama counties asked for $11.5 billion. The federal government set aside $4 billion for the entire country. Much of the request was for communications infrastructure - in particular infrastructure that allowed everyone to speak to everyone all the time. That, explained Walker is not needed - you only need to talk to some folks in an emergency. So, why not “flatten” the playing field by using existing radios and make them work togther? Enter a “magic box” from Raytheon that will do that for a county. Need to add in state and maybe federal emergency personnel and their radios? Enter eight mobile vehicles (at $300,000 each) that can get to any point in the state in 1.5 hours. That’s a cheap solution that serves everyone. There are no haves and have nots in that scenario!
Walker is quick to give credit for Alabama DHS success to having a scientist on staff - one he doesn’t even have to pay! Why? The fellow is paid by the military and helps civilian-ize technologies he knows of from the military. (That fellow is Norven Goddard.)
Walker could not say enough about Virtual Alabama (Joe covered that yesterday) and the handful of people (4 I believe) who basically put it together. The story is really interesting. After a few hurricanes the governor asked about seeing before and after imagery to help plan response and recovery. He couldn’t get it, even though the state had spent lots of money for imagery. He basically said “no more money until we know what imagery we have” and put Walker on the task of making that happen. Walker (who is self-effacing and quick to turn to tech experts) put Chris Johnson of the Space and Rocket Center and Goddard on it. One of the challenges they and he learned is that counties pay for 70% of their imagery and don’t want to share it. Instead of the fiefdom or other metaphor Walkers uses the “rice bowl” analogy. “It’s my rice bowl and I don’t want to share.”
Walker put that challenge as a “tipping point” challenge: he needed to tip this in his favor. And he did. How? But getting sheriffs and police chiefs on his side. When they approached county revenue people, they slowly started to see their side. (Besides, notes Walker, you don’t want to be on the bad side of a county sheriff!) Local paid and volunteer fire fighters could also see the value of a shared imagery base they could use. So, in 12-14 months, 64 of the 67 counties in Alabama have shared their imagery. Once the project has all 67 it’ll be formally announced, likely later this fall.
Walker is quick to point out that it’s the people “at the tip of the spear” who can best tell leaders their true problems (like sheriffs and police chiefs and fire fighters…). Further, it’s their passion we need to tap to get things done in our country. He specifically singled out volunteer fire fighters for whom the work is clearly a labor of love.
He also gets that “all data is local” though he says it differently. He says “situational awareness depends on where you stand.” In particular he notes 99.9% of things happen outside Washington DC. Virtual Alabama certainly did!
The next steps, going back to “working together” when your budget is not growing, is to put Virtual Alabama to good use in other areas besides Homeland Security including agriculture (chickens/cattle), conservation, fisheries, environmental management, economic development… He noted that Virtual Alabama has already brought two big plants to the state in part because those with the money could “see” how the plant might look, where the schools, roads, and resources were.
He wrapped up noting that the history of war is the history of technology. Further, he suggests, the history of response to terrorism is also the history of technology.