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Why Is DHS a Crappy Place to Work? – Part 2

Political appointees, the Congress, and the department

Anything and everything a president says is quotable. For that matter anything an elected official says is quotable, but they also come with something else – a spoils system. Those are the perks and special practices that elected officials have at every level of government. From dog catcher to president, the person with one more vote than their leading opponent gets the right to make those decisions and decide how those perks are used and distributed, usually to their direct advantage. Nowhere is the practice of spoils more prevalent than in political appointments.

Elected officials want to place people who supported them in their respective campaigns in key positions within the government. They also want to have people in those positions who are like-minded ideologically and operationally so that they can advance the mission of their political patron and build a longer and more durable political presence for their political party. To do that, it helps to have people who know what they’re doing in specific programmatic areas. For as energetic, bright and sharp as many elected officials may be, there is no way they can know or execute programs and policies without the help of like-minded supporters who are willing to help them out. Those are the roles of the political appointees of this president and every political appointee of the administrations that held office before.

The number of political appointees at DHS is just a couple hundred of people, rather than the thousands that some conspiracy-minded folks may believe. Fortunately for all of us, the overwhelming majority of the government apparatus on the federal, state, and local level is run by civil servants who are not hired based upon political patronage.

Political appointees are in many ways the “foot soldiers” that operate in the trenches of government. It is their job to make the programs and departments work to their utmost, not just for the good of the country and their fellow citizens but for the good things it can do for their boss when it comes time for an election.

Like its Cabinet and executive branch counterparts, DHS is just one of the places where you will find political appointees operating today. They are doing everything from being the secretary of the department to answering phones and mail in obscure and lesser-known offices within DHS’ components. Each of them serves at the pleasure of the president, which means they can be here today and gone tomorrow if someone senior enough in the administration would like for them to “get lost” and work someplace other than for the administration. They have few if any employment protections. Once a president’s term of office is done, so are they, and they need to move along as well. The only exception to these rules are those very few appointments such as federal judgeships (which are for life – unless they resign/retire or are removed from office through impeachment) and select positions like the FBI director, which is a 10-year term.

The number of political appointees at DHS is just a couple hundred of people, rather than the thousands that some conspiracy-minded folks may believe. Fortunately for all of us, the overwhelming majority of the government apparatus on the federal, state, and local level is run by civil servants who are not hired based upon political patronage. They come to their positions through various hiring and promotional processes (good and bad). That does not mean politics is not involved. Politics is everywhere in professional life, and there’s no escaping that fact.

When it comes to DHS’ political appointments, much like their Cabinet and executive branch peers, there have some very good ones and some not so good ones. That’s also a fact, regardless of a Republican or Democratic administration. Appointees come to their positions because, in short, they “knew someone,” or “earned a position” because of their service in a campaign or other relationship. The biggest challenge with any appointee is whether their level of experience and qualifications equip them to do the jobs they were hired to do.

Being the assistant press secretary or a noted campaign operative in one of the president’s competitive campaign states may give you some interesting skills as well as a number of political chits to cash in, but it does not mean you are necessarily qualified for the duties to which you are hired in the executive branch. People are either good matches for their positions or they are not. When it comes to political appointees, one of the biggest complaints you will hear has to do with age and arrogance.

A number of appointees are 20-somethings who, because they were on the winning campaign and had worked their keisters off in far off places in Iowa, New Hampshire, or some other state, are getting their share of the “spoils.” Just because you’re on the winning campaign does not mean you know everything. It certainly doesn’t give you the justification to bark orders once you’re hired as a political. That’s a reality of which any and every political appointee should be cognizant. Cockiness, arrogance and a “know it all” attitude are recipes for failure – both for their own time at the department as well as for the person whose patronage made their position possible. It also says much about a possible lack of maturity necessary to handle the diversity of situations and people that you will most certainly face if you work in homeland security.

Two of the greatest skills that any political appointee can have are the ability to listen and to generate respect. Both are usually best exhibited when the appointee’s mouth is shut, which tragically is not often enough. By listening, a new political appointee can benefit from situational awareness (and wisdom) that comes from the career civil servants, previous appointees and constituencies and customers of the department. There may be a very good reason something has been done a particular way. That does not mean it is necessarily perfect and shouldn’t be changed, but before tearing something apart to put something new in place, as every appointee is apt to do, listening with your ears rather than your mouth could pay bigger dividends for you and your elected boss.

Appointees of either political stripe are also always looking for ways to make their patron look good. Often that is done at the expense of the career staff or the previously elected or senior appointed official (who of course was probably a nincompoop, because God knows that the newly elected boss is always right, perfect and never makes mistakes). This would be called disrespect. Regardless of who the staff or the predecessor was and what they did, trashing them publicly or privately says more about you and your character than it does about the object of your criticism or the mission you are supposed to be serving.

The civil servants that the political appointees work with will be around a whole lot longer than the appointee’s tenure at the department. There are any number of mechanisms civil servants can employ to wait out the programmatic directions and attitude an appointee may try to impose upon them. They are the institutional bureaucracy, and they will remind you of that fact if the occasion demands it.

Sadly, I saw this in a few instances in my own time as a political appointee at DHS, but I’ve also seen it a lot more in observing the current administration operate at DHS. Disrespect contributes to poor morale at all levels, and sadly DHS’ rankings in the poor morale category put it at the bottom when compared to its executive branch peers. I think that says a lot about leadership.

Politicals have every opportunity to change this dynamic by the example they set. One way they can do it comes from taking on critics in Congress – of either political party – in defending the people and the missions that they serve. For example, in early 2009 when then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi accused ICE Agents of being “un-American” and questioned their “value system for undertaking the enforcement actions that they’ve been sworn to uphold, there was not a word offered by the department’s leaders in support of its personnel. Their silence was deafening, and it said a lot to the people of DHS that their political bosses would not defend them.

Furthermore, appointees that learn to work as a collective “we” with their civil servant colleagues rather than maintain an “us and them” mentality will find their professional experience and overall performance to be that much more rewarding. People who treat their appointed tenure as another campaign exercise of riding roughshod over everyone will find their satisfaction and career to be short-lived.

There’s another little fact that should also not be overlooked. The civil servants that the political appointees work with will be around a whole lot longer than the appointee’s tenure at the department. There are any number of mechanisms civil servants can employ to wait out the programmatic directions and attitude an appointee may try to impose upon them. They are the institutional bureaucracy, and they will remind you of that fact if the occasion demands it.

Political appointees are not the only ones who can benefit from improving their ability to listen and generate respect. If there is any political body in the universe that could use these lessons it is the U.S. Congress. Both qualities have been in woefully short supply for some time, and the current single digit approval rates prove it. Congress has long made tearing people and programs apart a blood sport. While it may make for great television and YouTube clips, it is lousy for running programs that need effective oversight and solutions.

The current Congressional Committee oversight conglomeration is tantamount to having 88 to 120 doctors all operating on the same patient at once with no agreement on which illness or organ needs to be fixed. In the process they are killing the patient that has been charged with the mission to protect them and the rest of the public from threats far and wide, known and unknown. Both political parties in Congress as well as the Bush (43) and Obama Administrations have failed to deal with the only recommendation by the 9/11 Commission left unaddressed – Congressional oversight. Instead, all parties have allowed the bullying and cajoling of DHS by Congress to resemble that of sugar-high kindergarteners or a Jerry Springer Show audience.

DHS employees regularly hear from their elected officials about how bad they are, how what they are doing is wrong even as they are being mocked and derided at every opportunity. Sure they hear from Congressional members that they are valued and their jobs are important, but it’s hard to feel valued and important when the same members are blasting them for something, while at the same time telling them they need to meet with a company that has a product or technology they should buy which will solve all of their problems. No one can take such words seriously, and frankly they don’t.

Politics is an unfortunate bedfellow for what DHS’ people and missions have to contend with. Fortunately there are people that serve as current political appointees (and in the previous administration) that do know what they are doing and know a thing or two about listening and respect. The challenge is that there are never enough of them to go around. The forced marriage of so many different cultures and components never allowed for listening and respect to become endemic to the DHS culture. Instead it exacerbated cultural differences and allowed the always-volatile politics and imperfect people of the day to make it worse.

When that’s the case, it’s no wonder that DHS can be such a difficult place to work.

Part One – Working in a sometimes thankless job

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

Part Four – Clearances, confidence, respect & trust


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

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-38207">
    Reinaldo Luis Andujar

    The author of this piece needs to distinguish between “Political Appointees” or PAs and Schedule Cs. The PAs need to go through the confirmation process while the Schedule Cs do not. Many of the PAs have served an ‘apprenticeship” or two or three as Schedule Cs in a previous series of administrations. Then there are the Schedule Cs that are converted to normal GS civil servants. A year to eighteen months before an administration ends there is a flurry of GS positions within the departments or agencies that are advertised, normally with a small window, for which the Schedule C has been provided the crediting plan and/or an advance copy of the vacancy announcement. In this manner key positions in a department or agency are filled with partisan individuals should the administration lose the general election. These individuals then wait for the electoral process to return their party back into the White House and they assist in the transition period.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-38254">
    Tim Sullivan

    Rich…Both Part 1 & 2 were right on the mark & just plain outstanding. Well done!
    The only part that I am sure you would/will be adding is that in spite of all the obstacles & hurdles you have pointed out, the true Work of keeping our nation Does somehow get done! We are better off with DHS than without it.
    How? Because of the great friendships, camaraderie and knowledge that no matter if you’re an appointee, a careerist, military or contractor the protection of our country is always foremost.
    All the disparate pieces are starting to work better as a team but we should remember that they are still very important & work quite well as individual,well -run operationally focused agencies.
    I was always impressed that no matter what your “pedigree” was while working at DHS HQ, there was little room for politics in homeland protection and with few exceptions, you knew your teammates at all levels had your back and were taking their jobs very seriously & working Very diligently. Like DOD, DHS just needs to continue to think & act jointly. Through cross-pollination, through a future DHS National “war college”, & by hiring more careerists & less contractors things will continue to improve.
    Great work as usual Rich.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-38402">

    There are more to come in this series. Keep your eye out for them, and thanks for your comment.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-39354">

    Your analysis is on the mark, but your partisanship creeps in at a few too many junctures – as when you mention observing poor listeners “a few instances” during your service, but have observed it “a lot more” in the current administration, is that a joke? – and it explains perfectly why you aren’t in government anymore.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-39357">
    Reinaldo Luis Andujar

    Both parties have individuals that are self-less, dedicated and contribute to the well-being of the Republic. Both parties also have individuals that are amoral, self-serving, ticket punching parasites. The quality of the selection process seems to depend on how critical the particular department or agency is to the accomplishment of the Administration’s overall political objectives.