Defense Media Network

Why Is DHS a Crappy Place to Work? – Part 6


Since I started this series I’ve heard from a number of different people. Some have applauded me for raising my voice to point out some things that need attention at DHS and others have said I don’t know what I’m talking about. In some of these exchanges, I’ve been called a political/partisan hack trying to slam the administration of President Barack Obama in an election year while being told by others, “thank you for telling it like it is.”

Feedback is always a valuable gift that can be accepted or ignored. To each person who has commented on message boards, social media, email or in person I say “thank you.”

The one thing I want people to understand about this series is the reason behind writing it. It was my goal all along to detail some critical areas that I think are worthy of attention and provide some perspective and consequences to each. Frankly I don’t think the issues I’ve mentioned are garnering as much attention as I think they deserve. There are certainly other major debates taking place today that are important (e.g., the economy, the national debt, etc.) but it is worthy of note that looking after the department’s personnel, the way it does business (internally and externally), etc., also deserves attention.

At no point was this series ever intended to pile on or to mock the department, its mission or its people. Despite whatever criticisms I’ve offered in this series (and other writings), readers should know that I firmly believe the department’s creation and integrated mission across components was the right decision for our government and nation.

Nearly 10 years later, while you’re standing in a seemingly endless airport security line, or filling out a long form at a Disaster Recovery Center, or stuck in traffic behind a Secret Service detail for a passing motorcade, it is very easy to forget the painful reasons why DHS was created in the first place.

Late night comedians who use national security issues to make jokes, members of Congress who argue for jurisdictional controls and for their district’s share of security dollars despite what risk analyses say, and members of the media who are all too interested in affixing blame rather than understanding the complexity of situations are just a few examples of how far removed we have become from the events of September 11. For as often as DHS is ranked as one of the crappiest places to work and as home to some of the lowest employee morale, it is also a reflection of how it is treated and perceived by others. Our government is “by the people” and since no one is perfect, there will never be a perfect enterprise either.

We also forget that DHS’ mission is herculean and essentially comes down to “make sure there are no bad days in America.” If there is a “bad day,” whether by accident (e.g., BP Gulf Oil Spill, etc.), Mother Nature (e.g., hurricane, tornado, etc.), or act of terrorism (e.g., Underwear Bomber, etc.), it is an almost Pavlovian response in this country to turn on the klieg lights, point the finger, and prepare to draw and quarter whomever is on duty that particular day.

That’s a pressure that not many people can handle, but it’s a mission that thousands of people perform every day in service, big and small, to fulfilling the department’s mission assignments. The word “thank you” can never be said enough to those that have served those roles from the beginning, to those who serve now or in the future.

As to its workplace, let’s face facts. No workplace is perfect either. Every one of us has had good and bad bosses, as much as we’ve had to work alongside the Dwight Schrutes, Archie Bunkers, Ally McBeals, and Wicked Witches of the world. Additionally, very few enterprises or organizations are ever fully capitalized or have the ultimate flexibility to do everything they want or are assigned to do.

In DHS’ case, it was handed a mission bigger than anything in the federal sphere and had money thrown at it hand over first in its early years, only to find itself overly micromanaged by an epic center of dysfunction (the U.S. Congress), second- and triple-guessed every step of the way, and facing budget cuts during the economic downturn.

This is the reality of a very complex, demanding and often confusing dynamic that is DHS. The people who operate in that environment have every right to feel both inspired and beleaguered by their mission assignments and expectations.

Homeland security functions and operations are inherently interdependent of factors that are often out of the control of the people in the middle of them. That’s challenging enough on the good days, but on the bad ones it’s even worse.

Whether we like it or not, we are in a dramatically evolutionary period in this country and world. Our laws, mechanisms and, some may argue, our culture are being challenged with new technologies, risks, and threats that we’ve never encountered before. Our country and mindset in many ways are still built for the comfort and clarity of the Cold War, an era that ended almost 20 years ago. Today we no longer live in that simple bipolar world. The threats we now inherit come from places and corners we either ignored or never imagined before.

The truth is, DHS was the first operational cornerstone our nation built to deal with the risks of the “new normal” era. It was nothing anyone particularly wanted to see built at first, because it meant changing the order of things (the status quo), but it became the necessary thing to do when the order of things changed.

As unbalanced and out of level as that cornerstone may seem at times, every day DHS gets smarter and learns more along the way. We also learn how to build on and out from it as well. Missteps and screw-ups happen every day in public and private-sector organizations, but it is the leadership and people in those entities that mostly endure the pain of those “educational moments.”

By pointing out, over the previous five installments of this series, where more improvements in “education” as well as operations and infrastructure need to be made, it’s been my hope to make the department better for not just its employees but its overall mission in protecting the public they’ve sworn to serve. I know that’s a goal shared by many inside and outside the department as well. All I’ve tried to do is put some of those issues on the table for debate and hopefully some action. For them to remain unaddressed does nothing to serve the mission DHS was chartered to execute. It will only exacerbate conditions that need remedy rather than avoidance.

Short of an “incident” occurring prior to Nov. 6 and it being handled or mishandled in some particular way, no election in 2012 is going to be won or lost based on what is happening at DHS. That’s as much a credit to the department as it is curse. DHS and its personnel deserve far more credit and respect than they presently get. The department’s people and mission are far too important to the American way of life, and for me that is an issue to which I think there is no debate.

Part 1 – Working in a sometimes thankless job

Part 2 – Political appointees, the Congress, and the department

Part 3 – The personnel system, the pay, and the confirmation process

Part 4 – Clearances, conferences, respect, and trust

Part 5 – Infrastructure in need of a makeover


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

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    DHS is a failure because its a response that did nothing. It combined agencies and thats all. It was not a response to a terrorist attack, it was a moving of the deck chairs.

    Nothing more or less. When a terrorist strikes who gets the call? DHS or the FBI? When a tornado destroys a town who gets the call DHS or Fema? Yeah I know Fema is under the umbrella but you get the idea. DHS has failed and the only organizations that appear to be embracing it are those agencies that were already doormats in the publics perception of them…the Border Patrol, Customs, maybe the ATF but the institutions that have proud histories show an disdain for it. Coast Guard, probably ATF and others.

    Why this turned into a 6 part series is also questionable. It served as a public bitch session of woe is me. The public doesn’t care because it expects its institutions to work. DHS doesn’t and yet it has the audacity to attempt to restrict civil liberties instead of protecting the people.