On January 24 in 2003, Governor Tom Ridge was sworn in as the nation’s first Secretary of Homeland Security, and his newly-minted Department opened for business. Many dedicated civil servants still working for DHS today remember its cobbling together from 23 departments, agencies and cultures in a space-starved infrastructure that forced multi-tasking staff to “hot seat” their workstations around communal conference tables in bullpen style office halls. The department has come a long way since then, but, it goes without saying, not as far along as it needs to be.
Governor Ridge was succeeded by Secretaries Michael Chertoff, Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson. Now, General John Kelly, sworn in on January 20, 2017 as the nation’s 5th Homeland Security Secretary, inherits an auspicious opportunity to reload “DHS 5.0”, 14 years into its arc, and accelerate the agency’s speed-bump progress toward achieving its full potential for protecting the nation from physical and virtual threats.
From my narrow perch as cyber and communications assistant secretary with “DHS 2.0” under Secretary Chertoff, my personal perspective is naturally limited, coming from a specialized unit of several hundred within a behemoth, multi-function organization north of 200,000 employees. But the following enterprise-level recommendations for progress – and many others not discussed here – are shared by many current and former DHS’ers. It would take too many Senate filibusters to explore how these issues can be fixed, but with Secretary Kelly’s vision and leadership, and a strong Deputy Secretary managing change as the equivalent of a corporate chief operating officer, it can get done.
And thus I offer:
1. Business Process: The key to better governing within DHS is strong business process: the nuts and bolts of getting things done. First and foremost, this includes:
- a) More efficient procurement processes so DHS can meet its mission objectives with systems and outsourcing acquisitions that finish on time and under budget. This is one of President Trump’s clarion calls for good management;
- b) More efficient and timely hiring processes: Notwithstanding President Trump’s current federal hiring freeze, mission-essential functions that must be filled often go through duplicative and lengthy DHS and Office of Personnel Management bureaucratic machinations, while putting candidates through months-long security clearance investigations, keeping them and their jobs in limbo;
- c) Predictable document approval process for memos, policy papers, position statements, and operational directives. The DHS executive secretary (or “ExecSec”) role is critical to getting approval from all essential and interdependent stakeholders of a given objective. But its cumbersome and “review by committee” spaghetti tangle slows policy and operational progress for the department. This is not unique to DHS and indeed is generally considered a fact of life in government, but measures can be taken still to speed the process, improve predictability and bring accountability to those in the decision chain who are not the primary lead for an issue but can stop or reverse the process just by stamping “nonconcur” in bold red letters on the document.
2. Employee Morale: This is a complicated problem. Solving it means taking seriously the imperative that many managers give obligatory lip service to: People are our most important asset. This is particularly so given that political appointees are in effect limited-term guest workers whose edicts, if not finessed with deft and respectful management, can be met with a nodding “yessir” or “yes ma’am” but followed with the dreaded bureaucratic slow-roll.
The sources of poor morale at DHS are not unique to the agency but seem to be more acute in this agency – issues such as employee uncertainty about strategic or tactical direction because of indecision or lack of communication from political leadership; hostile or incompetent management; convoluted and dysfunctional business process that frustrates mission execution; and disparate competence and performance among the agency’s mid-level career employees, causing programmatic black holes and resentment among the diligent professional corps.
It is this last dynamic that we should turn greater attention to. The hiring freeze may be an appropriate way to review how we manage necessary attrition, appropriate backfill or new hiring priorities, and true performance-based employment.
Many in government and the general public believe that American tax-payer dollars should not be required to guarantee life time government employment for those unwilling or unable to perform their duties, but for efficient and effective government service to the people. In our constantly shifting threat and economic environment, and increasing government austerity, the fact that government managers cannot terminate an under-performing employee except for criminal wrongdoing implicitly values poor performance equally with excellence. In this way, the overall organization, morale, and the mission suffer. We need to rethink this way of doing business.
3. Give Them Space: More than 50 DHS component offices are spread across the DC metropolitan area alone, bursting at the seams and causing commuter-corrosion of component cohesion and managerial efficiency. The DHS objective since 2008 has been to consolidate a more unified, secure campus that brings together its executive leadership and operational management by renovating the Saint Elizabeth’s former mental hospital in Southeast DC as DHS’s new headquarters. This $4 billion renovation of a 61-building, 176-acre campus is a decade behind schedule, caused by funding, political and logistical challenges. Currently slated to be completed by 2021 with a staff count of around 17,000, the number of DHS locations is expected to be reduced to between 6 and 10. This is progress, and the Coast Guard is already moved in. But special attention over the next 4 years is needed to ensure a transition that minimizes operational disruption and boosts employee retention and morale.
4. Congress: Please Give Them Space: Not the physical kind (you finally provided the funding) but the operational and managerial space to let DHS do its job. More than 80 congressional committees and subcommittees claim some element of jurisdiction over DHS to watch its books and tell it how to do its job. This oversight overkill usurps valuable DHS executive time traipsing up to Capitol Hill for briefings and hearings, and responding to questions-for-the-record, rather than managing the complicated and relentless task of protecting the nation from foreign and domestic threats. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul has indicated his intention to work with other committees to find ways to consolidate DHS Congressional oversight that will reduce turf friction and clear the way for better results from DHS. He should be given full support.
5. That said … DHS Transparency: It is no secret that DHS often lacks transparency in communication about its business. From Congressional consultations to private sector outreach and partnerships, to state and local engagement and assistance, DHS has for most of its tenure shown uneven attempts and a mixed bag of results at ensuring that its key stakeholders are informed, equipped, engaged and supportive.
As just one example, the most recent DHS effort to reorganize and rename the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) left bewildered Congressional staffers to criticize the inverted manner by which DHS redesigned its structure in a vacuum and presented it to the Hill as a fait accompli with a pretty red bow tied around it. Regardless of the merits, its success as an initiative appeared to have been undermined by a process that left the Congress without a say. Similar complaints have reverberated over the years from private sector and state officials. Indeed, during my tenure, I and my team were certainly not impoverished of healthy criticism. Keeping the eyes on all those bouncing stakeholder balls is not easy, but a necessary cost (and benefit) of doing business. The lesson is, if you really want to get something done, it is more advisable to live by the adage “better safe than sorry”, than “it’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”
In the end, I have every confidence that DHS can become a respected, effective, and powerful mission critical agency. It is getting there. Its new leadership will take us yet farther to make it so.