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Why is DHS a Crappy Place to Work? – Part 5

Infrastructure in need of a makeover

In another several months, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will have been in existence a decade. With 10 years under your belt, it’s safe to say the “new car smell” has long worn off but, at DHS, there never was a new car smell. At its Washington, D.C., headquarters facility, the infamous “NAC,” which is short for Nebraska Avenue Complex, there were a lot of other smells to contend with, and those were anything but refreshing.

Located in upper northwest D.C. near the campus of the American University amid some of the finer homes of the nation’s capital, the NAC was, for many years, a U.S. Navy facility that most notably worked to crack the communications codes of the Nazis during World War II. Prior to that, the NAC had served as a seminary and also as an all-girls’ school.

With its red-bricked buildings, white chapel, and well-manicured grounds, it has all of the visual charm of a small college campus. Truth be told, it was accurately described by the then-DHS deputy secretary, Paul Schneider, in a 2008 congressional hearing as a four-letter word. Don’t panic. The word he used was “dump” and it was in direct response to a question about why more people didn’t want to come and work there.

I can only imagine what went through the minds of Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, and Janet Napolitano when they stepped foot into the building where their new DHS office would be. “I left the governor’s office/federal judge’s chambers for this?” For as rustic as their executive office might have been at the time (when compared to where they came from), it could not compare to the environment in which others at the NAC have had to work.

When former President Ronald Reagan died in 2004, the NAC served as the staging ground for all of the then-current Cabinet secretaries to gather en mass before proceeding to National Cathedral for the funeral service. Several of us who worked at the NAC at the time and in the building where the secretaries assembled observed the look of shock on their faces as they entered the building and holding room, with moldy carpet and walls and chipped paint that was probably lead-based, prior to leaving for the funeral service. One of us remarked that they might all pass the hat and buy then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge a Home Depot gift card to help him fix up the place. They might have even sponsored a rally from their respective departments to lead a Habitat for Humanity® weekend to repair a few things. (They didn’t do either, but it would have helped.).

While much has been done to remedy many of the physical maladies of the NAC since the early days of DHS, Tom Ridge took over the facility in 2003, it remains emblematic of the challenges the department continues to struggle with after so many years.

  • It is literally on the other side of the world from where the rest of the action in Washington is occurring;
  • Getting there by car, bus, Metro, or horseback is by no means easy, convenient, or practicable;
  • It does not have enough meeting space to accommodate the needs of the personnel who work there; and
  • It does nothing to build the cohesive “One DHS” culture that secretaries Ridge, Chertoff, and Napolitano have been tasked with creating.

The anticipated remedy to the NAC was the creation of a brand new headquarters facility on the grounds of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in southeast Washington, D.C., (also on the other side of the world from where the majority of action in D.C. occurs).

Secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security. From left to right: Former Secretary Tom Ridge, Janet Napolitano, and former Secretary Michael Chertoff. (Not pictured is former Acting Secretary James M. Loy.)

Secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security. From left to right: Former Secretary Tom Ridge, Janet Napolitano, and former Secretary Michael Chertoff. (Not pictured is former Acting Secretary James M. Loy.)

Never could you have find a more appropriate match of personality with real estate property than this one. Taking a department with multiple components and personalities and headquartering it on the grounds of a closed and dilapidated federally run psychiatric hospital has to be kismet or serendipity of some sort.

After groundbreaking ceremonies in 2009 and getting construction under way on new facilities, the future of the new DHS headquarters that was planned to bring the majority of its components physically together is about as clear as mud. Because of the same fiscal budget issues that are affecting every other federal budget, ambitious and even conservative estimates of a true operating and versatile facility are essentially moot. Only the Coast Guard’s new headquarters on the site are expected to be completed on time, in 2013. But the GSA’s construction budget is so underfunded in the 2013 budget ($56 million, when the agency requires $460 million), that no one knows when, or for that matter if, the campus will be completed.

I know to some this bemoaning of the DHS NAC will seem to be whining. There are undoubtedly harsher working environments encountered by other DHS employees (on the U.S. borders, on U.S. Coast Guard cutters, undercover, and in regular operations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Secret Service, and others, etc.), but if you are going to ask people to do a demanding, absolutely necessary and thankless job and expect it be a professional, respectable 24/7 operation, having the facilities and resources to make it happen is a must. While the current NAC facility and operations have improved dramatically since DHS took residence in 2003, it remains an embarrassment.

What is even more befuddling is the fact that the entire Pentagon structure was built between Sept. 1, 1941, and Jan. 15, 1943. That is nearly 16 months from start to finish and here we are 10 years later and DHS is still operating out of a government hand-me-down that has been taped up and glossed over to make it remotely functional.

Maybe it is unfair to compare the headquarters of the nation’s defense establishment to the patchwork quilt that is DHS. DoD certainly has a longer established history and maturity, but DHS’ mission is no less important – to address the homeland’s worst days and challenges.

Congress and others have made much about morale at the department, and appropriately so. There are lots of ways to improve it. In previous comments in this series, I have mentioned the need for better salaries, leadership/career development opportunities, improvements to the clearance process, and real respect for employees. A better work environment is also needed.

Investing in the physical infrastructure of the place you want working 24/7, 365 days a year without stop, without risk of physical breakdown, and that is not an embarrassment is not a luxury – it’s a requirement. Whether it is a completely refurbished facility at Nebraska Avenue or redevelopment of St. Elizabeth’s, having a DHS Headquarters that is truly functional, respectable, and effective is an investment that will benefit every American – not just the employees who work there.

Part One – Working in a sometimes thankless job

Part Two – Political appointees and the department

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

Part Four – Clearances, confidence, respect, and 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-41327">

    Unfortunately this is all the truth. But as you know as it was with us the plank owners, you have to be there for the mission or it is not worth it. There is still plenty of threat to contend with and we will not get the deserved priority until a crack is penetrated.
    When I built the NOC I was told it would only be needed for eight months before we would get a new facility. But having been in the government for too may years to mention I cramed as much capability into it as I could. I expected it to last 2 no more than 4 years not over eight.

    Keep up the good work