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The Department of Homeland Security Turns 10

A never-ending mission and the threat within it

A lot can happen in a decade. Music, fashion, technology, and leadership can change in monumental ways. All you have to do is look at your phone to see that the tool you once used just to make calls can now be used to purchase movie tickets, check-in at an airline gate, and Skype/FaceTime with business colleagues and friends at almost any moment. Children, as well as hairlines (graying and receding) and waistlines (expanding) are another metric of how time has changed things. For all of those changes though, there are some things that remain the same.

In the course of recognizing the 10 years that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been in operation, that “sameness” is something that should be applauded, but in other ways should be of even greater concern. In terms of what remains the same, the mission the department was chartered to fulfill remains steadfast: Protect the homeland. While that mission and public focus has evolved to be more than singularly terrorism-focused to better appreciate the terror and consequences that Mother Nature unleashes in some form every day in this country – it remains the mission served.

A disaster assistance poster is placed inside this Disaster Recovery Center for Hurricane Sandy survivors, Jan. 23, 2013. The Department of Homeland Security has evolved over the last 10 years to better focus of natural disaster response. FEMA photo by Andre R. Aragon

A disaster assistance poster is placed inside this Disaster Recovery Center for Hurricane Sandy survivors, Jan. 23, 2013. The Department of Homeland Security has evolved over the last 10 years to better focus on natural disaster response. FEMA photo by Andre R. Aragon

What also remains the same is the need for the department’s mission to remain nationally focused. From Tom Ridge to Michael Chertoff to Janet Napolitano, each DHS secretary has spoken and enacted actions to bring together international, federal, state, local, and tribal governments and to engage private sector and non-governmental actors of all types to do their part to prepare, partner and protect against all threats in every imaginable and unimaginable form. Along the way there have been problems, but lessons have been public, have been learned, and have been applied, at some times better than at others. Tom Ridge’s original credo of “You cannot protect the country from inside the Beltway,” remains true today.

The threats the department has to mitigate against also remain the same. While al Qaeda may not have the numbers and force it once did, its mission continues to inspire people overseas as well as in our own homeland. Hate and its inspired actors can take many forms and apply their reasons in various ways that can be separate from anything close to Islamic extremism. Furthermore, the fury that is Mother Nature seems to grow in new ways each year, while cyber threats and incursions grow every nanosecond.

Finally, the national embarrassment that is congressional oversight of DHS and its mission remains the same 10 years later. If anything, this condition has grown worse over the decade, from an initial 88 congressional committees with oversight roles to nearly 120 today. There is no course correction that Democratic and Republican leaders of various Congresses can proudly point to as improving this situation. The offered lip service, like their fulltime pandering and posturing on these issues (among others) remains the only metric that shows a steady climb.

Secretary Janet Napolitano at the witness table at a U.S. Senate hearing by the Homeland Security Committee. Congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security has mushroomed over the last 10 years. Department of Homeland Security photo

Secretary Janet Napolitano at the witness table during a U.S. Senate hearing of the Homeland Security Committee. Congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security has mushroomed over the last 10 years. Department of Homeland Security photo

As concerned as I am about these situations, the greatest threat I think the department is facing is within it, and it directly relates to its personnel. Let me be absolutely clear here – I am not talking about internal saboteurs or terrorist sympathizers within the department’s ranks. Rather I am talking about the health and well being of its entire workforce and its ability to attract and retain the people it needs to perform its mission assignments 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. For years, DHS has seen an exodus of talent at all levels. Consistently ranked at the top or close to it of the “Worst Places to Work,” in the federal government, the department has suffered from morale problems almost from the beginning that sadly can only be described as epic if not chronic.

Additionally the personnel system by which it hires new talent to join its ranks is cumbersome and brutally inefficient. Add these factors on top of the lack of any increase in compensation as well as pending sequestration and furlough actions brought upon by the Obama Administration and both parties in Congress, and there is little reason to doubt that DHS is a crappy place to work. Of late I’ve also heard of numerous departures from senior positions within DHS’ Science & Technology Directorate as well as the top levels of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), with little to no urgent effort to replace the exiting talent.

While not outing or betraying any of the confidences that former colleagues and friends who work at the department have revealed in conversations about how things are going for them, not one of them has had anything positive to say about how their jobs are going. There are those that may see such commentary as coming from people who always have something bad to say about their jobs and bosses. That would be a mistake, as none of these persons, or other colleagues of theirs that I have recently encountered, could be described in the infamous words of disgraced former Vice President Spiro Agnew as “nattering nabobs of negativity.”  Like their department colleagues, they all love the mission they serve and the people they do it for, but in a climate of constant negativism, a strong and forthright foundation for the future of the department cannot be forged.

A Transportation Security Administration official conducts an identification check, Jan. 1, 2012. Despite the smile, studies have shown that Department of Homeland Security employees suffer from low morale.  Department of Homeland Security photo by  Brigitte Dittberner

A Transportation Security Administration official conducts an identification check, Jan. 1, 2012. Despite the smile, studies have shown that Department of Homeland Security employees suffer from low morale. Department of Homeland Security photo by
Brigitte Dittberner

Leadership at all levels, from the secretary to all the way down, has to step up to stem the tide of personnel who are increasingly walking out the door, fed up with the impediments and ineptitude that have prevented them from doing the jobs and missions they intended to in the first place. Additionally, leadership has to step up to give the department a personnel system that truly works to bring in stellar talent rather than serve a process built to ensure mediocrity and the status quo. That includes pushing back against the federal union leadership that has consistently blocked and undermined every previous effort to rework the personnel system, and its compensation system, for the betterment of all, and not just dues-paying, card-carrying members. That also means acting with speed and flexibility across the board in making hires to ensure diversity, competency and efficiency to serve all of its missions.

An organization is only as good as the talent that is within it. In so many ways there are places within the department where it is obvious how good they are, and also where they are not. We are fortunate to have so many in the department (as well as outside of it) that serve an ever-present and never-ending mission, but they all deserve better across the board than they are getting.

It’s a tremendous disappointment not to see progress in this most core of areas at DHS 10 years after its creation. Marching in place in mud and quicksand has a tendency to cover over and swallow up the forward progress you need if you want to advance into the future. That’s exactly what is happening in terms of dealing with personnel issues at DHS. Such a marching cadence also leaves you hollow and with a shallow pool of talent in areas where it’s most critical. Ten years after its creation, that is a condition DHS cannot afford to be experiencing.

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...