The concept of decentralization is very simple. Rather than concentrating all your vital assets in one place, you spread them out so that if one is destroyed, the others remain functional. The terrorists already do this by operating in dispersed “cells.” Not only that, but we know that very often one “cell” doesn’t know what the other one is doing or even who they are. All this to keep the core organization intact in case one part of it is compromised.
Both the public and private sectors understand this and often strategically decentralize and have backup and recovery plans. However, we still physically concentrate the seat of our federal government in a geographically close space. Given that 9/11 represented an attack on geographically concentrated seats of U.S. financial and government power, is it a good enterprise architecture decision to centralize many or all government headquarters in one single geographic area?
On the one hand the rationale for co-locating federal agencies is clear: The physical proximity promotes information-sharing, collaboration, productivity, a concentrated talent pool, and so on. Further, it is a signal to the world that we are a free and proud nation and will not cower before those who threaten us.
Yet on the other hand, technology has advanced to a point where physical proximity, while a nice-to-have, is no longer an imperative to efficient government. With modern telecommunications and the Internet, far more is possible today than ever before in this area. Furthermore, while we have field offices dispersed throughout the country, perhaps having some headquarters outside DC would bring us closer to the citizens we serve.
On balance, I believe that both centralization and decentralization have their merits, but that we need to more fully balance these. To do this, we should explore the potential of decentralization before automatically reverting to the former.
It seems to me that decentralization carries some urgency given the recent report “World At Risk,” by The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism—it states that “terrorists are determined to attack us again—with weapons of mass destruction if they can. Osama bin Laden has said that obtaining these weapons is a ‘religious duty’ and is reported to have sought to perpetuate another ‘Hiroshima.’
Moreover, the report goes on to state that the commission “believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”
Ominously the report states “we know the threat we face. We know our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing. And we know what we must do to counter the risk.”
Enterprise architecture teaches us to carefully vet and make sound investment decisions. Where should we be investing our federal assets—centrally or decentralized and how much in each category?
Obviously, changing the status quo is not cheap and would be especially difficult in the current global economic realty. But it is still something we should carefully consider.