When we assumed control of the Department of Homeland Security back in January of 2009, it seemed we were inheriting a department known for one thing: a color coded alert system that was more useful to late night comics than to the American people.
The colors were never associated with any useful information so knowing we were at yellow, or orange, didn’t communicate anything meaningful to people, with the possible exception of: be afraid.
Neither Secretary Janet Napolitano nor anyone on our team faulted the architects of that system who, in the uncertain days after 9/11, rightly knew the country needed a formal way to communicate potential terrorist attacks. But, like much of the original homeland security architecture that had evolved since then, this system was due for an overhaul.
The basic tenets of risk communication have long been to say what you know and what you don’t yet know; to state what you are doing about it; to tell people what they can do about it; and to commit to providing more information when you have it.
In the era of hyper transparency in which we live, these principles have never been more important. To a country, indeed a world, now accustomed to accessing any piece of information they want whenever they want it, the default expectation from the people of their government has become disclosure.