Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 18, 2006

The root causes of homeland security dysfunction

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Organizational Issues — by Christian Beckner on May 18, 2006

The Washington Times has a very good editorial by Harlan Ullman on homeland security today, looking at some of the root causes of dysfunction in the Department of Homeland Security. He writes (emphasis added):

Before producing fixes, understanding the causes of the problems that must be corrected is the first step. The overarching problem DHS faces is not of its own making. The root of the problem stems from the Constitution and the principles of federalism and checks and balances.

Today, multiple, overlapping federal, state and local jurisdictions preclude establishing clear lines of authority and accountability that actually put people in charge. Without those, assignment of responsibility is meaningless. Bluntly put, no single person or organization is (or can be) in charge of homeland security.

The national capital region vividly shows what happens. The region includes portions of Maryland and Northern Virginia that abut Washington, D.C. One would think that disaster planning here should be the national gold standard. It is not.A recent Government Accountability Office report concluded why: “no one is in charge.”

An obvious further reason for this absence of authority is sovereignty. No state or local jurisdiction wishes to relinquish its authority or control to an external entity, particularly the federal government. This was one key reason why the Katrina response failed so miserably.

He offers three recommendations about how to address these “root cause” problems. First, he proposes the creation of a “Homeland Security Board” along the lines of the Fed or the SEC to “regulate and set homeland security standards and policies, and, with DHS, to ensure compliance,” using leverage points akin to the Fed’s power to set interest rates.

This is a very interesting concept, and one that is worthy of further thought and consideration. What types of standards and policies would the Board set? What sort of “leverage points” could be offered to ensure compliance across multiple levels of government, beyond the simple carrots of homeland security grants?

Second, he proposes a reorg of FEMA to separate “administrative” recovery from “operational” preparedness and response, and suggests giving the latter to the Coast Guard. I’m a bit averse to this idea for the reasons stated here. Third, he proposes the creation of a professional career-track within DHS, akin to the uniformed military and foreign service officers, which he calls a “homeland security corps.” This is an excellent and necessary idea; here was my proposal about how to do this, from a post two months ago:

One solution that could mitigate this outcome would be the creation of a professional and competitively-selected “Homeland Security Officer” career track, similar to the State Department’s Foreign Service. These “HSOs” could be drawn initially from the existing pool of high-qualified people at agencies such as the Coast Guard, CBP, and the Secret Service, and competitively selected in future years. Participants in the DHS Scholars and Fellows program could be offered streamlined entry. It could be implemented in a way similar to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols reforms of the Defense Department, which require military officers to have a rotation outside of their core service branches as a precondition for promotion. These HSOs could serve in a large share of the key non-political jobs at the DHS HQ (and in Operations & Analysis and Infrastructure Protection) and ensure continuity by assuming acting roles during times of transition. A marquee professional track at DHS would also help the Department to attract the best and the brightest candidates for employment.

Overall, an interesting op-ed and one whose recommendations deserve further consideration.

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2 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 18, 2006 @ 7:56 pm

There is merit in both comments and suggestions. It is important to note however that instead of a topdown system we have a bottom up system. Instead of who is in charge, find out who does what best or has the best legal authority and could succeed. Once that is done then the gaps could be filled in novel ways. Instead of reorganizing for each major domestic response and recovery operation, why not figure out what is needed and just organize that way. Despite the Heritage Foundations report super-FEMA regions are not needed. The response cell of the feds should be collocated at the state EOC’s with talent and level of skill matched to risks. Then over a career the most competent feds could go to states that are bigger or have more activity. Emergency Management grew out of the fact that while some elected leaders have the background, time or will to lead in a crisis it helps to have someone who can help find all the helpers and helpful systems, Just as it is apparent neither Mike Brown or Secretary Chertoff was familar with the NRP (it only became effective in April and even now is under active revision) they could only flounder when the time came to lead. We live in a complex world and sometimes it takes doggedness, training, motiviation, energy and just plain “grip” as the British say to get it done. No one in DHS seems to have “grip’! Maybe the Coasties but no one else.

Comment by bellavita

May 19, 2006 @ 7:17 pm

A detailed description of what such a federal reserve-like system might look like is contained in Steve Flynn’s book, America the Vulnerable

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