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DHS: The Department of Everything?

Posted by Joan Johnson-Freese on


Coast Guard HQ DHS campus

A colleague and I wrote a 10-year retrospective assessment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2011, calling the organization a “colossal, inefficient boondoogle.” Amazingly, that didn’t land us on the no-fly list, probably because — even then — we weren’t the first, last or only critics of DHS.

Joan Johnson-Freese

The actions and events that provided fodder for critics was long and varied. Hurricane Katrina was considered DHS’ first test of ability to coordinate disaster response, a test the department largely failed. The $6.7 billion DHS surveillance technology initiative, or “virtual fence” designed to secure 6,000 miles of the American border, was scrapped in 2011, falling victim to poor planning and oversight.

Complaints about both the ham-fistedness and botched-job of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) — clearly the least popular and most visible arm of the DHS to the public – have been the stuff of which late-night comics dream. Now, four years later, and with Jeh Johnson having replaced Janet Napolitano as the fourth secretary, it is time to ask if DHS has improved or remains a colossal, inefficient boondoogle. The evidence, regretfully, says “no”.

DHS was created as a response to the 2001 terrorist attacks. That is what taxpayers think and expect DHS should focus on preventing. Yet a 2012 bipartisan Senate investigation found that DHS’s nationwide network of offices through which all levels of law enforcement and government can share information about potential terrorist activity, called fusion centers, did little to track or disrupt terrorist threats and cost as much as $1.4 billion in federal taxpayer support between 2003 and 2011. In 2013 DHS was criticized for having what was called a “bunker mentality” in communicating with the public and the multiple congressional committees and subcommittees charged with its oversight, including regarding identification of its priorities. Hence the problems.

Three issues keep DHS struggling: a stew of organizational cultures, a bungling of personnel management and, most fundamentally, an organizational charter that seems to designate DHS as the Department of Everything. But, as Frederick the Great so aptly put it, “he who defends everything defends nothing.”

The Department of Homeland Security was created as part of George W. Bush’s National Strategy for Homeland Security released in July 2002. It was intended to “ensure greater accountability over critical homeland security missions and unity of purpose among the agencies responsible for them.” Subsequently, DHS has admirably stated its vision as “to ensure a homeland that is safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism and other hazards,” with five associated missions: preventing terrorism and enhancing security; securing and managing the borders; enforcing and administering U.S. immigration laws; safeguarding and securing cyberspace; and ensuring resilience to disasters.

But those missions include just about everything except war and foreign policy. Apparently the hazards of deep-frying turkey are included; DHS issued warnings on those hazards in 2011. So are the hazards of dryer fires in the homes — with failure to clean lint filters as the major threat. DHS was on the job too at the 2015 Super Bowl, making sure that tee-shirts on sale were manufactured through an appropriate license. Were Ebola to cross into the U.S. in a serious way, it would fall within DHS’ purview as well, though DHS was criticized in 2014 when it prepared for that potential by buying supplies — many of which were expired or near their expiration date. Clearly, keeping America safe from terrorists threats isn’t the only job of DHS; any potential hazard crossing or within U.S. borders seems to fall within it bailiwick. Killer bees from Latin America? Call DHS.

The creation of a Department of Everything was inherent from its pedigree. This bureaucratic behemoth includes 22 federal government agencies, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the Animal and Plant Inspection Agency, the Secret Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the National Biological Warfare Defense and Analysis Center, the Nuclear Incident Response Team, the Coast Guard, TSA, and the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Somewhere between 240,000 and 300,000 – depending on whether contractors are included with federal employees — former strangers were kludged together and expected to work together as Team America to fight all threats and hazards to the United States.

Business executive Louis Gerstner, Jr. is credited with saving IBM during his tenure as CEO between 1993-2002.  Gerstner talked about organizational change in his 2003 book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? “Reorganization to me is shuffling boxes, moving boxes around. Transformation means that you’re really fundamentally changing the way the organization thinks, the way it responds, the way it leads. It’s a lot more than just playing with boxes.” The key to real change is organizational culture, though it is also the most difficult organizational task. Said Gerstner: “If I could have chosen not to tackle the IBM culture head-on, I probably wouldn’t have. My bias coming in was toward strategy, analysis and measurement. In comparison, changing the attitude and behaviors of hundreds of thousands of people is very, very hard. Yet I came to see in my time at IBM that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game.”

At least everyone at IBM was focused on computers.  DHS has at least 22 vastly different and sometimes antithetical cultures simply because of their training and tasks – , the Coast Guard, biological weapons experts, Secret Service agents and TSA employees – and they are all expected to work congenially and effectively across and between those vastly different cultures. While all DHS employees are well-intentioned, there isn’t a DHS culture that is a prerequisite for success. How do we know that? DHS employees tell the story.

External criticism of DHS has been harsh, but internal indicators of problems have been equally or even more damming. A December 2013 survey of job satisfaction of federal government employees marked the third consecutive year of decline and the second straight year of DHS employees ranked last in terms of job satisfaction among the 19 largest agencies. This survey has been taken annually since 2003, and DHS is considered, “a perennial bottom-dweller.”

Employee issues have shown up in other, performance-related ways as well. The Secret Service – an organization that long prided itself on its professionalism – has been riddled with issues ranging from hiring prostitutes in foreign countries to lapses in security at the White House, and most recently, senior agents drunkenly crashing into a White House barricade. Then-Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy cited “low morale” as a problem affecting performance in 2014. And, finally, the higher-than-normal attrition rate at DHS is both another indicator of problems, and feeds into low employee morale.

Personnel problems within DHS fall into many categories. At heart, employees are frustrated with sometimes having no boss or a boss who has less experience in or knowledge about the area they are responsible for than they have. On the other hand,  upper management at DHS is frustrated by having too many bosses.

Frequent turnover means people get promoted very quickly, sometimes before they are ready, and positions get filled with candidates that might not be considered ideal, or even qualified, under other circumstances. Nobody likes to be the worker bee responsible for doing the higher-paid boss’ job or making sure they don’t screw up. In senior positions, individuals can get more “help” than they want or need from above, since more than 90 congressional committees and subcommittees have some jurisdiction over DHS, more than three times that of the Pentagon. Sometimes that help is not useful; sometimes it’s contradictory, and almost certainly it’s frustrating. So people leave.

DHS knows about its morale issues. In response, it has taken the time-honored bureaucratic alternative to action; to study the issues, repeatedly, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $2 million. But doesn’t have many options as long as it remains the Department of Everything.

Former DHS assistant secretary Juliette Kayyen recently said during a public radio interview that the agency is “focusing on border, emergency management and cyber. Those are sort of the three lands that it’s beginning to, I would say, get its wings.” How long would it take to really get those wings though? According to Kayyem, “you’ve got it give it 20 or 30 years.  The Department of Defense took a lot of time to find its lane.”

DHS is – largely through no fault of its own – a dysfunctional bureaucracy.  It is not alone in that regard either. I would suggest that, to a certain degree and for other reasons, NASA and professional military education fall into the category as well. The important question is whether DHS can — or should be– “fixed.” Perhaps the answer is to dismantle the behemoth.

Every job that DHS is responsible for is important and needs to be done. Many of them need to be done in a coordinated fashion. But they were all being done before, without the DHS structure. Coordination certainly needed to be improved, but that could have and still could be done without the DHS structure. Unless and until DHS can fix the three monumental issues outlined above, DHS seems doomed to remaining a colossal, inefficient boondoogle, a boondoogle taxpayers can’t afford. Can we really afford to wait 20 to 30 years?

Joan Johnson-Freese, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a professor at the Naval War College. The views expressed above are her personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, the Navy or the Department of Defense. 

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