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There is every reason to applaud the beginning of a new year. It brings a sense of hope and renewed energy for the future, and if ever there was a place for that, it’s the Department of Homeland Security. Unlike last year, when the department was dealing with the after effects of the infamous Underwear Bomber (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab), the 2010 holiday season was relatively calm and uneventful. That is unless you were snowed in because of the storm that slammed portions of the East Coast or were an irate outgoing . [Way to support local public safety and emergency managers during a weather emergency Gov. Rendell! Glad to know that you’re always thinking of them (note the sarcasm)!]
Adding further to the calm that DHS is currently experiencing is that the majority of its senior leadership positions are now filled. While there were certainly capable and qualified “Acting” people serving those roles as Presidential nominees made their way through the confirmation process, having the people the administration wants in these critical posts is ideal for everyone involved. We no longer have to wonder about what’s going on with the top spots at TSA or at CBP or Management (at least until later this year, given the recess appointments of Alan Bersin and Rafael Borras).
Having stability in leadership is good for everybody, but it also points to a fact that there should be no more excuses when it comes to actions and decision making. For the better part of this past year, there has been (for lack of a better description) an “analysis paralysis” on-going at DHS, and it needs to end. By “analysis paralysis” I’m talking about looking, talking and studying an issue to figure out what you’re going to do about it, and then never getting around to doing anything about it because you’re too busy (or acting busy) looking, talking and studying the issue without end. It’s sort of like the DMV’s of old where you stood in line forever to get nowhere fast.
— We are still waiting to hear what, if any, realignment or reorganization is going to happen with the department given the completion of the QHSR and the Bottoms Up Review. I know DHS officials said that they would include their thoughts in their FY12 budget submission, but with the failure of Congress to pass an FY11 appropriations’ bill, there are rumors that DHS may push off reorganization until later. Is this just lingering talk from last year or is realigning/restructuring of DHS now off the table?* What’s the status of collective bargaining for TSA’s workforce? In the midst of the 2008 Presidential race, then-candidate Sen. Barack Obama was all for giving these workers collective bargaining rights, but his Administration has punted this issue so many times you would think they were trying to impress talent scouts so they could make the football team. One has to wonder whether the suggestions from incoming House T&I Committee Chair John Mica about privatization of airport screening activities isn’t one method of reducing the number of individuals eligible for collective bargaining.
— What about the future of border security efforts? The Secretary’s office has been close hold and absolutely cryptic for nearly a year about what it’s going to do with the future of the Secure Border Initiative. It’s not as if the Secretary is unfamiliar with these issues because she is no neophyte when it comes to the border. One of the reasons she was selected for her current post was for her direct knowledge and experience with the border – a fact that she alludes to just about every Congressional appearance and speech she gives. Reports are that the SBInet technology is working to provide Border Patrol agents with capabilities they have not had previously. If the Secretary makes the decision to terminate that program, what will become of DHS’s current investment and what will DHS propose to take SBInet’s place? Answers to these questions should not be difficult, given the Secretary’s experience. Still, how much longer is necessary to make a decision?
— What about improvements in information sharing? In her 2009 confirmation hearing, Sec. Napolitano made a point of talking about what needed to be done to improve these areas. Yet, the department continues to fund, as well as study, HSIN and several other informational offerings with no clear decision on the horizon on what it’s going to do here. How much longer can this go on if we are to have any hope of stabilizing and maturing these mission-critical processes? And what impact, if any, did the WikiLeaks disclosures have on information sharing initiatives?
— What about improved management systems and acquisition processes? While the department has matured over its nearly eight years of existence, it has not dramatically improved in the execution of its procurements and acquisition services. Let’s be serious here. Have you ever heard of a DHS procurement that was not under some type of protest and was not in a post-crash, crash-test dummy position? I’d also argue that this Administration’s words, regarding its vision for the department in these areas, are not a whole lot different than the words that Secretaries Ridge and Chertoff offered, though those two administration’s had a much more immature organization than the one in operation today. It’s long past time for these operations to be improved.
I’m sure to some readers, my list will seem like a bunch of whines. They’re not intended to be but rather a cry in the wilderness for the department to start making long overdue decisions and take tough actions. Leadership vacuums and transitions are certainly reason enough why some decisions can’t be made immediately, but those excuses are no longer plausible or believable.
The Obama Administration owns DHS wholeheartedly and pointing out the shortcomings and problems you inherited is not credible either. Every administration inherits an inbox of tough, stinking problems to address. One day the current crop of leaders will depart their terms of office and will hand off another tough, stinking inbox to their successors. That’s a cold reality of operating at the department and that is why I and others are becoming increasingly frustrated at the on-going lack of decision making at DHS. Punting decisions and actions on the always overflowing inbox is a failure of leadership in a place where failure has too dramatic consequences.
Some of the decisions they eventually make to the issues I raised (and others that I’ve not listed), will not be popular. That’s OK because that is all part of decision-making and leadership – two things that the department needs to start showing.
My hope for DHS in 2011 is that it will begin to make some of the tough calls it is supposed to be making and not keep punting them downfield. As any football fan will tell you, you don’t score points that way and you certainly don’t gain much respect when that becomes your default position on tough calls. Sometimes you have to take the risk of making tough calls and grunt it out to get ahead, and getting the department ahead on all that it has to do is in everyone’s interests.
This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.