August 29, 2014 by David Olive

If being a “good listener” is a trait of being a good leader, then Dr. Reginald Brothers, the relatively new DHS Under Secretary for Science and Technology, is well on his way to being the type of leader that DHS S&T needs. And the message he has been delivering can be boiled down thusly: “I’m listening. Help me help you by telling me what you think/want/need.”

It is a message that has been positively received, predominately because it seems so very different from the relative silence (at least from a private sector perspective) out of Vermont Avenue over the past few years.

Unlike his immediate predecessor, Dr. Tara O’Toole, who didn’t give her first public talk to a private sector group until after she had been in office for more than a year, Dr. Reggie Brothers was speaking in public within the first 60 days after he had been confirmed.

His initial presentation to the Security Industry Association on June 3, 2014 set the stage for the messages he consistently delivers. (n.b. “Thank You” to Mickey McCarter of SIA for the opportunity to hear Dr. Brothers’ presentation.) They also came out during the Q&A session following his first appearance on Capitol Hill before the House Homeland Security Committee, and he reiterated it again this week in an interview with Jason Miller of Federal News Radio. The presentations have been articulate, thoughtful and responsive to the audience interests. But I grew up in the South, and we not only talk slowly, we apparently hear things slowly too. For that reason, I wish Dr. Brothers would slow down his delivery and speak a bit louder than his “normal” voice because it comes across as if he is mumbling, and it makes him difficult to understand.

Nevertheless, the substance of his message was this: Building on his previous experience in the Department of Defense and in the private sector, Dr. Brothers wants to reach out and build a better relationship with the Homeland Security Industrial Base and understand the current technology “baseline.” He wants to understand not only the pace of technology development but also the pace of technology adoption by the public. He is impressed with the passion and depth of knowledge of the S&T employees, and he wants to build an empowered work force. He believes the S&T portfolio needs to be more “balanced” than it has been in the past and that means delivering on short-term needs while continuing to advance long-term projects. And he wants to build consensus around broad visionary goals before developing the strategies that will lead to the pathway to achieve those goals.

Toward that end, earlier this week S&T launched a new effort on Ideascale (a method of using crowdsourcing technology) to get feedback from federal, state, local, private sector, national laboratory, academia and almost anyone else who has an interest in the DHS S&T mission. Specifically, Dr. Brothers asks for insight on S&T’s proposed “Visionary Goals” for the future. These goals, developed over several months by S&T, are based on the policies and priorities of the White House, the DHS Quadrennial Homeland Security Review and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s directives, including the “Unity of Effort” memo (kudos to Christian Beckner of Homeland Security Watch, who first publicized the memo) that Johnson issued shortly after assuming leadership of DHS.

Dr. Brothers wants to know what “the future of homeland security” will look like in 20 to 30 years. He wants feedback on how America can be ready for that future. Here is what he asked specifically:
What challenges will DHS components, responders, and our other end users face? How should the homeland security community change in order to best respond to these challenges? What should S&T plan for now to ensure the nation is more resilient and secure in the future?

He also wants to know if there are other visionary goals that DHS S&T should pursue. Comments can be posted on the public, unclassified site until September 7th.

Yet, as noble a pursuit as adopting “Visionary Goals” may be – even knowing that the strategies to implement those goals have not yet been articulated – there are other areas where Dr. Brothers soon needs to do more than be in “receive” mode. As one S&T insider told me, it is time for him to start “transmitting.”

There are a lot of people within S&T who know that Dr. Brothers’ tenure might end at the close of the Obama Administration, and there is relatively little time for him to make the kinds of changes that will instill confidence, build trust, and restore credibility in the workforce and stakeholder community. Dr. Brothers knows that he inherited a DHS secretariat where the employee morale was so low that it was rated next to last among all federal agencies in the annual OPM survey. Now that he has been in his position for several months, there are no longer any outside restrictions on structural or personnel changes he can make, should he choose to do so. But will he?

There have been significant departures from S&T over the past several years, and while some vacancies have been filled, there are too many positions that are being filled by people in an “acting” capacity or the position is vacant. The qualifications (from both the technical and personnel-management perspective) of the people who fill those positions will send a strong message about the type of organization Dr. Brothers wants to build.

My own experience is that finding technically competent people in Washington is far easier than finding competent individuals who “fit” within the culture of the organization and who have the people management skills to create “followers.” (See Garry Wills’ book, Certain Trumpets, where he defines leadership as “the ability to attract followers.”)

Like many organizations that take on the characteristics of the person at the top, since its inception, S&T has reflected the personality, priorities and professional interest of the Under Secretary. There is pervasive hope that the DHS S&T of the present – and of the future – can deliver on the “Visionary Goals” Dr. Brothers has proposed. So far, there are many of us who believe that he can achieve the results he desires if he gets internal and external support. The time to start is upon us.

There are also many of us who want to help DHS achieve its mission – to make America safer, more secure, and more resilient in the face of increasing threats from across the globe and here at home. For that reason, if for no other, I hope many people will accept Dr. Brothers’ offer to provide feedback on the Visionary Goals S&T is proposing. I also hope that Dr. Brothers will continue his “listening” tour with the genuinely sincere attitude that he has expressed thus far.

But he also needs to step up and make some public pronouncements as to his own vision of leadership if he wants to build the confidence of his employees, other DHS components, the Homeland Security Industrial Base, academia and, not least, those folks on Capitol Hill who provide authorization, oversight, and appropriations so he can do his job.