DHS: Glacial Reorg, Passing the Buck

DHS Management Woes

A survey of federal employees in 36 federal agencies recently found that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a massive department with over a hundred thousand employees, was at the bottom of the rankings:

  • 36th on job satisfaction.
  • 35th on leadership and knowledge management.
  • 36th on results-oriented performance culture.
  • 33rd on talent management.

Just last week news outlets reported that various concerned parties criticized the agency on its borders program, its treatment of asylum seekers, and its management of contracts.

The agency's troubles aren't new. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) put DHS on its "high-risk" list as the agency faced significant management challenges in its mission to combine 22 existing agencies into one. The designation indicates potential for failure with catastrophic consequences. In 2005, the GAO kept the DHS in the "high-risk" category, because the agency had not made significant progress in several key areas such as financial accounting, information technology, and meeting goals previously highlighted by the GAO. This year the GAO put DHS on its "high-risk" list yet again because the agency failed to make the requisite progress.

In his address to the House Homeland Security committee last week, David Walker noted: "The current financial condition in the United States is worse than is widely understood and is not sustainable." However the security threats the US faces demand that DHS "operate as efficiently an effectively as possible in carrying out their missions." The GAO criticizes DHS leadership for many things including lack of transparency and slow progress meeting objectives. During his first outing to the new Congress last week, Secretary Michael Chertoff, a former judge, responded to questions and criticism about the DHS. He defended the the agency's progress, saying in his opening remarks:

"the Department of Defense took 40 years to get configured properly and the first secretary of defense committed suicide."

We're not sure whether someone should call a helpline on his behalf or whether, more likely, his statement was part of a defensive tactic to sooth his potentially hostile audience. Another official DHS official reported to a congressional committee looking at reports that DHS wasted millions of dollars:

"It is still the case that the department is just a collection of disparate, dysfunctional agencies," Ervin said. "There is yet to be an integrated, cohesive whole."

Then when ABC news interviewed a spokesman for Homeland Security about its dissatisfied employees, the spokesperson blamed the media and its focus on FEMA for the "low morale".

The official comments, if relayed even partially accurately by these sources, indicate that the Department of Homeland Security is trying to muddy the waters around its management responsibilities and evade culpability for its awful track record. We'll just pass that buck along, thank you very much, they seem to say.

FEMA -- Once Lame and Now Lame Again

DHS officials cast a wide net all the way to the media to find someone to blame. It's a familiar ploy, however its unpersuasive. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was one twenty-two departments rolled into the DHS when it was formed in 2003. FEMA received very well deserved criticism during and after Hurricane Katrina, but the media doesn't control or manage FEMA, FEMA and DHS do.

Many of the agencies rolled into DHS were no doubt "dysfunctional" before the reorg. But to unmuddy the waters a bit, we should point out that contrary to assertions, FEMA, for one, was not always dysfunctional. Acronym Required wrote several articles about the agency's performance during and after Hurricane Katrina and took a look at the history of the discombobulated organization.

In "FEMA-Turkey Farm Redux?", we reported that FEMA was once the laughing stock of government. In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when George H.W. Bush presided over government, Senator Hollins once commented that the FEMA staff was "as sorry a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses as I've worked with in my life". Through the early 1990's the agency continued to be known by unkind labels such as "a turkey farm", and "a political dumping ground". Four-fifths of FEMA's employees were dissatisfied according to one survey.

But FEMA turned itself around during the Clinton administration under James E. Witt. Many people were taken aback by the suddenly effective agency, including Senator Feinstein, who practically gushed: "I really think FEMA is a new agency...it is the difference between day and night".

FEMA is once again dysfunctional, now that its been subsumed by the Department of Homeland Security. The MBA President's administration formed the dysfunctional DHS, and the dysfunction prevails despite intense post Hurricane Katrina FEMA scrutiny and reorganization. We all know that the challenges of public management can be stupendous, but can the US afford to condone continual failure in such a critical organization?

Management in Never Never Land

Is Chertoff suggesting that forty years is a management turnaround timeline suitable for the 21st century? Although he may be well on his way to meeting this goal, it doesn't seem as though the Department of Homeland Security is stepping up to the type accountability demanded by effective businesses or government. Not to mention, the image of responsibility shirking doesn't become the Administration of the MBA president.

According to the President's government management plan we have a new type of government now, one run more like a business. The administration announced the new management plan back in the summer of 2001 and fleshed it out in the document "The President's Management Agenda", released in 2002. At the top was a quote attributed to Governor George W. Bush. Government always "begins" things, he said and, "declare[s] grand new programs..." But this isn't the way it should be.

".....What matters in the end is completion. Performance. Results. Not just making promises, but making good on promises. In my Administration, that will be the standard from the farthest regional office of government to the highest office of the land."

Bush wanted to revamp a government full of "underperforming agencies..[that] rarely face consequences for persistent failure". His agenda pledged a new era where "high performance will become a way of life." Under the sub-heading "Manageable Government", the President's promised to "focus on results", and to "impose consequences" on lackluster performing agencies.

"Underperforming agencies are sometimes given incentives to improve, but rarely face consequences for persistent failure. This all-carrot-no-stick approach is unlikely to elicit improvement from troubled organizations"

But in a recent 240 word summary of progress called "What are our management practices like today? (1/30/07)" published on "Results.gov", DHS, the agency well known for its catastrophe bumbling and financial incompetence, escaped mention. Results.org is dedicated to tracking the administration's government management goals. The performance summary mentions two agencies that apparently have "the greatest ability to be effective", and six others "who did what they said they would do this past quarter". High standards indeed, but DHS wasn't among these agencies.

Optimistically, Results.org points out that "most agencies continue to make good progress on the Faith-Based, Real Property and Improper Initiatives...". Perhaps the agency performed these amorphous goals superlatively? Because the President visited DHS this week and said that he was "proud" of the work they had done on terrorism. OK, there's the carrot, but where's the "stick", and who is accountable for these "grand plans" for government reorganization?


Acronym Required previously commented on FEMA and GAO in the Project & Process Management part of the site.

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