Mess in Congress Partly To Blame For Homeland Security Failures

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Ethan Barton Editor in Chief
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Department of Homeland Security officials still don’t coordinate enough with each other and workforce morale in the sprawling anti-terrorism operation is among the lowest in the federal government – and congressional disorganization is partly to blame, a House panel was told Friday.

The department was formed in 2002 following 9/11 to unify 22 existing security agencies, but Congress didn’t follow suit, leaving 108 committees and subcommittees with duplicative oversight responsibilities. That blunder contributes to the current lack of coordination, according to witnesses appearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee.

“Relinquishing territorial area … is difficult,” said Homeland Security and Defense Business Council President and CEO Marc Pearl said. “I think it’s estimated that over 108 committees and subcommittees” have some jurisdiction over homeland security.”

“There isn’t that sense of efficiency and coordination within the Congress,” he said, so DHS officials are continually required to appear at repetitive hearings, leaving them with less time to do their jobs.

“Hearings are necessary, but they don’t solve the problems,” said Elaine Dukes, of Elaine Duke & Associates, LLC – a government consulting firm – and a former DHS undersecretary. She suggested that DHS leadership instead communicate directly and openly with the congressional committees.

Pearl acknowledged that the subcommittee couldn’t fix the problem, but hoped its members could raise the issue with congressional leadership. Still, DHS should do more to require its agencies to better coordinate their work, he said.

“Certainly 12 years-worth of data should be sufficient to give a basic sense of where the frictions and the dependencies lie,” said Business Executive for National Security Board Director Harry Totontis.

The private sector wouldn’t allow for the inefficiency caused by DHS’s poor coordination, said Subcommittee Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa.

“Commercial firms would be much more cautious about risking projects with cost overruns and schedule delays,” Perry said. “In contrast, DHS all too often has ignored risks and moved forward with unachievable programs leading to wasted tax dollars and late, mostly and unimpressive results.”

“As the nation faces significant homeland security threats and our national debt continues to climb, we can afford no more mismanagement,” Perry said.

Multiple DHS agencies, for example, spend tax dollars to collect the same immigration data, rather than having just one shared database, Pearl said. Also, employees have to repeat background checks when moving between components.

“The entry on duty clearance process at DHS has been problematic, duplicative, expensive, time consuming and frustrating,” Pearl said. “Components refuse to recognize background investigations performed by another component.”

DHS needs to create department-wide policies that force agencies to use the best, rather than their preferred management practices.

“There are some good things happening in various components,” Pearl said. “There is a challenge to take those models of best practices… and trying to bridge that to other components.”

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s “Unity of Effort” campaign launched last year is intended to do just that, but the challenge is executing that effort, Totontis said.

“It sounds great, it’s the right mission,” Totontis said. “The devil is in the details.”

The panel agreed that there needs to be an effort from DHS leadership to ensure that Johnson’s campaign actually carries out to each agency’s programs and doesn’t become a public relations slogan.

“If the subcommittee can keep DHS’s feet to the fire, we would very much appreciate it,” Pearl said.

Nonetheless, the ever-changing and inconsistent policies between DHS and its agencies – especially their reluctance to invest in workforce improvement – has decayed rank-and-file employees’ morale.

A highly motivated workforce is critical, Pearl said.

“With high employee morale… an organization achieves on-going improvement capability that feeds upon itself,” Totontis said. “What I have read suggest that employee morale [at DHS] is a challenge.”

“We all know the challenges DHS has had with morale,” Duke said.

She suggested that DHS leaders and Congress needs to “recognize the positive” to help boost morale.

“Most civil servants that work in DHS are passionate about serving the country,” Duke said.

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