Policy Brief - Progressive Policy Institute

Fixing the Department of Homeland Security

| November 2007

In November 2002, Congress passed legislation creating the first new Cabinet department in more than a decade — the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Now in its fourth year, the department is plagued with problems and chronic mismanagement. If DHS is to fulfill its mission, the next president will have to take a hard look at the agency and make some major structural changes.

The department's biggest and most spectacular failure was its abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina. The list of DHS shortcomings, however, does not begin or end with that historic debacle. To cite but a few examples, the color-coded terrorism alert system has succeeded primarily in sowing confusion, and the department has yet to come up with a plan to deal with an outbreak of Avian flu.

A deeper indication of the department's plight is its failure to attract and retain staff. This is not merely an administrative problem for DHS; it is potentially a life-threatening circumstance. After all, this is the department charged with protecting the public from terrorist threats. If it cannot hire and keep individuals who are willing and able to carry out that difficult mission, our nation's ability to detect and prevent attacks could be compromised.

On this score, the data is bleak. In the summer of 2006, the Office of Personnel Management conducted a job-satisfaction survey of federal workers in all 36 major federal agencies. The DHS ranked last in job satisfaction; second-to-last in leadership and knowledge management; last in results-oriented performance culture; and 33rd in talent management.

With results like these, it is no wonder that both political and career professionals have avoided the department. As of May 2007, fully 138 of 575 executive positions in the department — 24 percent of the total — were vacant. Nearly one-half of the executive positions in the policy department were vacant, along with 36 percent of the slots in the critical office of intelligence, 34 percent in the immigration division and 31 percent at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In addition, the department has suffered from its reputation as a den of cronyism. From Michael Brown, whose preparation for running FEMA had been a stint as director of the Arabian Horse Association, to Julie Myers, a 36-year-old lawyer with fine political connections but little management experience who somehow became head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, the department has not attracted people with experience.

The next president, Democrat or Republican, will have to confront this legacy of failure. He or she would be well-advised to complete a restructuring plan immediately — before a new secretary of DHS is nominated and confirmed — to ensure that reforms will have the necessary institutional support within the highest levels of the department. Cabinet officers and other political appointees have long been known to "go native" once they assume office, developing a vested interest in the status quo. This explains the importance of having a restructuring plan in place that the newly appointed DHS secretary can call his or her own.

This paper proposes a redirection and redefinition of DHS, with an aim toward helping it more effectively pursue its core mission: protecting the American people.

Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, served in the White House from 1993 to 1997, where she created and managed the Clinton administration's National Performance Review.

For more information on this publication: Please contact International Security
For Academic Citation: Kamarck, Elaine. “Fixing the Department of Homeland Security.” Policy Brief, Progressive Policy Institute, November 2007.