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A few weeks back at Georgetown University, the three people to hold arguably one of the most demanding and difficult jobs in the world sat down to talk about homeland security. During the session with former DHS Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, the current secretary, Janet Napolitano, made a plea to the attending students to join the Department and serve in one of its critical mission areas. She also mentioned that she would be undertaking a series of speeches at various universities to talk about the Department, its mission, the future of homeland security and how a new generation of Americans can serve the homeland. In her own presentation style, the secretary has jokingly remarked to students that she is accepting resumes for jobs that need to be filled. If it were only that easy.
Around a year ago, the secretary made a very public pledge that DHS would be hiring 1,000 or so cyber security experts over the next three years. In an article from Homeland Security Newswire, “DHS struggles with IT hiring,” some rather sobering numbers have been revealed. “Roughly 200” employees were hired in 2010 with plans to bring on 100 or so this year. That’s a far cry from the 1,000 employees Napolitano’s pledged to bring in. As easy as it might be to pile on the Secretary for an unfulfilled pledge, truth be told these numbers should be no surprise.
Besides trying to attract some of the smartest, technically versed and potentially highest paid workers out there, the secretary is saddled with a personnel system that even Kim Jong Il of North Korea would reject as a problematic disaster.
For years, the secretary and her predecessors have had to depend on the NSA and other federal departments to detail personnel to perform many of its cyber duties. Despite being granted additional hiring authorities by Congress and the Office of Personnel Management to provide for expedited hiring, the system in place continues to slowly grind away and provide limited output. As a result, many qualified candidates who want to serve their country get fed up waiting for paperwork to clear its way through the system and move on to other positions.
That waiting is nothing compared to the very long, drawn out clearance process that frankly is measured by multiple months and in some cases years, rather than weeks or days. Clearances are certainly important and should be a priority for numerous positions at DHS, but they are also an obstacle to putting people on the front lines under constant assault from forces overseas as well as inside the homeland. No one wants an Aldrich Ames or worse working at DHS, but we also don’t want important seats that need to be filled to be empty either.
The secretary deserves enormous credit for pledging to bring in the numbers she wants to have in place, but if the system continues to fail her as it is now, she should raise holy hell and toss a chair to get the attention of those around her to make the machinery move faster. Process is important, as is getting the right people, but in the end, output matters and the current numbers are a warning sign to all of us that we are not populating some of our most important positions that we need working day and night on our behalf.
There are already enormously gifted and talented folks doing many of these important cyber jobs right now, but like any pressure-filled position, there is also an attrition rate of people who leave to take other positions for either greater opportunity, better working conditions or of course, better pay. I hold no grudge against any of them for doing that, but we do need to hold a grudge against a system that is failing us when we need people the most.
This piece was originally posted in Security Debrief.