April 12, 2013 by Rich Cooper
If you want to have a successful relationship in anything, communications are critical. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) begins every congressional hearing by asking how long people have been married and their thoughts on the secret to a long marriage. Carper always answers his own question, naming “communication and compromise,” adding that these traits are how the federal government ought to run.
Weighing Carper’s metrics for a successful relationship, however, I have to wonder if DHS really cares about its relationships with anyone. The department’s communications with just about everyone are lacking of late. This is seen most clearly in the way DHS recently rolled out its 2014 budget submission.
There was no public event or announcement explaining its funding priorities. There was no conference call with stakeholders around the country to let them know what the budget holds for them, nor outreach to reporters to describe the department’s investments. It seems like DHS has little-to-no interest in telling the public how they want to spend taxpayer dollars.
What they did do was attempt to post the budget materials on the DHS website, along with the customary background materials. Yet, instead of posting this year’s submission, they inadvertently posted last year’s budget. It was not until DHS received a few calls did they remedy their error.
For many people, my concern over DHS outreach and communication could be branded as sour grapes, given that I’m a former political appointee from the previous administration. I suppose that is a fair label in some respects, but as someone who was fortunate to be a part of the department’s formation and helped establish critical relationships between DHS and the private sector, professional associations, other government agencies, educational institutions, etc., what we see happening today is deeply troubling.
Aside from the occasional photo op, the customary speech laden with rhetoric about “our partners in the private sector, blah, blah, blah,” and of course the obligatory platitudes that we see in news releases and congressional testimony, the level of engagement with people outside the red brick walls of the DHS complex is anemic, if not nearly extinct.
Under the auspices of the “efficiency initiative,” which Secretary Napolitano instituted shortly after her arrival and whose purpose was to save money as well as streamline communications, I guess you could say it’s been a miraculous success. Communications are certainly streamlined when no one is talking (or is afraid to talk), and it saves money when you make it absolutely cumbersome and bureaucratic to go outside of the Nebraska Avenue Complex to attend meetings, workshops, or other professional gatherings of people who are knowledgeable and interested in what DHS does.
As a former leader of a professional association of homeland security professionals (Chair of NDIA’s Homeland Security Division), I can personally attest to how difficult the department makes it for groups to have DHS’ principals and personnel engage in conferences, workshops or meetings.
After dealing with the customary paperwork detailing an event’s who, where, what and why, there are usually questions regarding the value your group would provide should DHS allow a principal to speak or attend the event. Over the past several years, major conferences, workshops and publicly available programs (such as those put on by NDIA, AFCEA, SARMA) that assemble knowledgeable and diverse stakeholders have found their programs full of holes because DHS pulled its people from agendas, as well as the audience. To overcome the situation, a number of DHS employees have started to use personal leave to speak, participate or attend such programs.
Don’t you find it interesting that we trust many of these people with top secret security clearances, charging them with keeping the homeland safe, yet, they can’t be trusted to decide what is a good use of their time – like attending or participating in a program?
By any measure, “efficiency” does not describe such a culture or operating environment. This is why I find the events of the past week and the budget rollout so disappointing. I’ve learned after many years that if you do not make the effort to speak up for what you believe or what you want to do, others will fill the vacuum with want they want. That information could be correct, it could be misleading, it could be outright fantasy, but it will be the thoughts and words that fill the void you left open.
That is what DHS is doing right now when it comes to communications. Instead of having stakeholder groups of every political stripe and profession engaged and informed, they remain on the sidelines – uninformed and unengaged. That is no way to sell a budget, or anything else for that matter.
You can have all of the prepared statements for Congressional hearings, the press releases that detail everything in nicely aligned charts, the infographic and Facebook post spicing things up and showing you’re hip to the new stuff, but if you don’t speak to the stakeholders, no one is going to speak up for you.
The conversations and relationships DHS used to have with stakeholder groups in Washington and around the country appear to be a part of its past. They are certainly not a priority for its present or future. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t hear this type of complaint from groups I’ve been a part of for years, as well as from reporters, congressional staff, and even current and former DHS employees.
I never thought a conversation, let alone proactive communications with people who could be supporters and champions for your interests, could be deemed so irrelevant that you just don’t see it as a valuable priority. That even goes for communicating with your critics who, from time to time, may actually bring new perspectives as well as a few ideas worth considering.
While I certainly think the people in the department’s leadership care about the mission they serve, I just wish they had more appreciation and respect for the people outside their walls and the importance of talking with us in a way that befits the nation and the ideals and discourse it stands for. Right now, they don’t.