June 14, 2013 by David Olive
This morning, the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency held a hearing to explore the question, “Why Can’t DHS Communicate Better With the American People?” It is a worthy topic and one that has been begging for congressional oversight. I hope the committee will keep the hearing video in the “hearings archives” so it can be referenced in the future. It should be required viewing by public affairs practitioners and homeland security stakeholders.
Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Duncan (R-SC) and Ranking Member Ron Barber (D-AZ) both delivered opening statements that should be a wake-up call for DHS – but likely won’t be IF the DHS front office maintains the attitude of arrogance that Congressmen Duncan and Barber lamented in their opening comments. For example, here is a part of what Chairman Duncan said:
“Whether it is with Members of Congress, the press, or directly to the American people, 10 years after its establishment, the Department of Homeland Security seems to have developed serious challenges communicating its goals, priorities, tactics, and missions.
“This Administration specifically has an increasing sense of a bunker mentality in responding to the public, engaging with stakeholders, and collaborating with industry and advocacy groups. Perhaps more disturbing is the Department’s lackadaisical approach addressing legitimate questions and concerns raised by the American people on a host of issues from TSA’s screening policies to DHS ammunition purchases, to the impact the Sequester would have on the Department and its components.
“When DHS officials or their colleagues at the components do respond to legitimate questions concerning Departmental policy or actions, responses are often defensive and condescending. I found this out first hand when I raised serious visa security issues with Secretary Napolitano in April only to be told that my question was not worthy of an answer because – and I quote “It is so full with misstatements and misapprehensions that it’s just not worthy of an answer.” That is a heck of a way to speak to a Member of Congress who represents almost 700,000 American taxpayers who help foot the Department’s $60 billion budget.
“The inability of DHS to sufficiently address concerns raised by the general public – or even to engage in a discussion – erodes trust in the Department, and that is my concern. An uncommunicative Department of Homeland Security that is seen as consistently stonewalling increases people’s skepticism of DHS, strains the institution’s credibility, and makes people question the motivations of the Department’s leadership. How does this serve DHS’s critical mission to defend the homeland?” (emphasis added)
Even Ranking Member Ron Barber’s opening comments, which were generally positive about the mission of DHS, noted problems in the manner in which DHS communicates with the public – and this should be even more disturbing since it is generally rare for a member of the Administration’s own party to criticize Executive Branch actions (and I, for one, commend Congressman Barber for his forthright, candid comments.) Here is what he said:
“It is the role of the Department’s Office of Public Affairs to communicate to the public the programs and policies of the Department and to inform the public with necessary homeland security information.
“Too often, the dissemination of this information to the public has not been handled in an effective manner.
“The Department has struggled to successfully convey its message, not only when things have gone wrong, but also when things have gone right.
“Yet, the public is not aware of these good news stories. Likewise, the Department has not had great success with addressing its shortfalls in the public arena.
“Conflicting messages during the immediate aftermath of the sequester and the handling of the release of detainees in the media are but two examples of the Department failing to ‘get ahead of the story’ in an effort to avoid public fallout.
“As stated in an article in the Arizona Star that was published earlier this year, too often the Department puts image control before information flow.” (emphasis added)
Image control before information flow? Wow! Couldn’t that be interpreted as Inside-The-Beltway code language for protecting the political image (and future) of the Secretary, as many have believed was the unstated mission of the DHS Public Affairs office?
Congressman Barber also mentioned in his opening comments (although not in his written statement) the serious problems with the morale of DHS employees, who internally ranked DHS as 19 out of 19 – the bottom of the barrel – among Executive Branch agencies in the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. What Barber did not say, but is well known, is that the DHS Public Affairs shop quashed efforts by DHS components to discuss the survey findings. Why? One might speculate that it was exactly as Congressman Barber claimed – “image control before information flow!”
In any event, the Committee is to be commended for holding the hearing. Let’s hope there are more hearings on how DHS can better communicate with the American public – the people for whom they work and who depend upon timely, accurate, and candid information about their security from terrorist acts and natural disasters.