September 22, 2014 by Rich Cooper

The emails and social media posts started on Sunday evening. A new Washington Post story had just been posted detailing the lingering problems at DHS in terms of retaining leadership and talent in some of its most critical positions.

As bad as the story was, there’s no escaping the feeling of picking up the morning paper from the driveway, pulling it from the plastic bag and seeing it on the front page. There it was. Above the fold, in the top left corner of the front page of one the country’s most notable newspapers reads the headline: “Top-level turnover makes it harder for DHS to stay on top of evolving threats.”

As one of the early plankholders of DHS, I have to tell you that this headline placement, along with the article, was the last possible place I wanted to see it. I’m not alone in feeling the cringe and sadness. The article – which I have no qualms about – is accurate, brutally so in places as it chronicles the failures and challenges that the youngest Cabinet department is having in executing its mission. With abysmal morale, high turnover, congressional mismanagement, lousy pay and so on, DHS is accurately described as the worst place to work in the Federal government.

I’m sure if you’re former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge and his successor, Michael Chertoff, you’re probably wondering how it go to this point. When the Department was handed off to the Obama Administration, it was by no means perfect. It had poor morale, poor facilities, congressional mismanagement, budget issues, open leadership positions and so forth. Those situations though have only become worse since they left the Department.

If you talk to anyone at the Department today, they’ll tell you firsthand how bad things are at DHS and offer the latest instance of, “You won’t believe this one…”

They’ll also tell you this is not the mission they signed up. Spending your day doing constant congressional hearing preparations; fighting the other components for jurisdiction on an issue; finding someone else to serve in an “Acting” leadership position because the person who was the “Acting” leader just left for another position; telling your spouse how important your job is to the country but failing to have any type of pay raise for years… The song and refrain of those repeated lyrics remain the same, but today the tune has only grown louder to end up on the front page of the Washington Post.

But since this is Washington, and we don’t meaningfully address issues to solve them, let’s play the game we’re all really, REALLY good at – the blame game.

First up – Congress. As detailed in the Post article, there are more than 90 Congressional Committees with oversight of DHS. That’s the low end of spectrum, folks. Depending on who you talk with, it is closer to 120 committees. Think about that – having anywhere between 90-120 different committees to respond to, on top of an In-Box that includes dealing with Mother Nature and counterterrorism threats; a broken immigration system; looking after cargo, shipping and cross-border actions; protecting the president and his family from various threats, etc., etc., etc.

Here’s another publicly known fact: streamlining congressional oversight is the only recommendation from the 9/11 Commission Report that has not been addressed by Congress. Everything else recommended by that Commission has had some type of hearing, an Executive Order, a Federal rule, a piece of legislation or some other action taken on it. Everything but this one.

As easy as it is to blame all of Congress for this mess, blame can be specifically assigned to former House Speakers Dennis Hastert, Nancy Pelosi and current Speaker John Boehner, along with Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell and lots of other former and current congressional members who have run the committees. They all have held or currently hold the powers and abilities to correct the idiocy of their oversight of the Department. But let’s face facts: Congress doing its job has about as much probability as me having brunch on the Moon by the end of this week.

Next up – The White House and its leadership. For as truly skilled as they are in campaign operations and voter messaging, the Obama Administration has proven to be catastrophically inept at leading and operating the very government whose keys of ownership they won twice in two presidential contests. There is a stark difference between campaigning and governing, and I can think of no administration in my own lifetime that has proven to be so poor in these skills. Sadly, DHS and many other critical government components are suffering for the lack of those skills or putting in people capable of actually leading.

I look at my old office at DHS (the Private Sector Office) where I spent three very active and rewarding years, and it is not even a glimpse of a shadow of its former self. Countless numbers of relationships that had been built with key stakeholders (private sector owners and operators of critical infrastructure; trade associations and professional groups; universities and other institutions, etc.) were all ignored or just disregarded as meaningless. The photo op for the Secretary became a more valuable metric than providing the candid conversations and meaningful engagements in which real information and insight might be shared with the Secretary’s Office or its components. My old office is not alone in this respect. There are other offices in the Department that fail to register meaningful impact or effectiveness anymore.

The truth is, the two most stable places in DHS right now are the U.S. Coast Guard and FEMA. There are good reasons for this. For the USCG, it helps to have an institutional culture that develops talents from beginning to end, which the Coast Guard does in spades. As for FEMA, who could have thought that nine years after Hurricane Katrina, “firm, stable and competent” would be words that describe the once beleaguered emergency management agency?

Indeed, arguably the best and brightest spot in all of DHS in terms of leadership competence and capabilities is at FEMA. That’s in large part because of who was placed in charge of it – Craig Fugate – and the fact that the White House and Secretary Napolitano reduced their meddling there to minimal and purely photo-op levels. Sadly, elsewhere in the Department, the Obama White House did not follow the model they did with Craig Fugate.

Then there’s former DHS Secretary Napolitano and the Efficiency Initiative. I’ve ranted for years about the “Efficiency Initiative” put in place by Sec. Napolitano and her so called “Arizona Mafia” and its impacts. Rather than rehash all of those arguments, I will simply say this about its effectiveness: when your “efficiency” efforts restrict DHS personnel (including its senior leadership) from being able to engage the public and stakeholder groups in meetings, working groups, conferences, and any other type of assembly without filling out sheets of paperwork to justify the interaction and information exchange to a 20-something former campaign aide (who has no other meaningful professional experience) and is now operating in the Public Affairs shop with approval authority, you’ve got a problem. It’s disrespectful to the staff entrusted with critical mission responsibilities; it’s a morale buster for your entire team (as you say “I don’t trust you,” despite their having a security clearance and job responsibility); and it atrophies the very relationships and understanding that you want stakeholder groups to have for the Department, it’s components, and its mission assignments. To me, those atrocious conditions are the legacy of Secretary Napolitano’s tenure at DHS.

To his absolute credit, Sec. Johnson (who already has the worst job in Washington trying to right the DHS ship that has run into the rocks) has been working overtime to reestablish many of the relationships in which Napolitano and her team placed so little value. His candor, accessibility, and willingness to disregard the handed-out talking points to just plainly talk with people is more than refreshing and gives me a glimmer of hope that he’s the right guy at the right time. He has already filled a number of critical vacant leadership spots, but his ability to recruit top-tier talent to the Obama Administration’s ship in its final two years (while it shows the seaworthiness of the Titanic in an ice flow) is cause for everyone’s concern.

There are some solutions to this current crisis but that’s for another blog post. Right now like a lot of fellow (and former) DHS brethren, I’m just really disappointed to see what we worked so hard to build to be in such sad shape. Our nation expects more and should have it.