The National Journal has an interview (available by subscription only) with Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen in its latest issue out today, which contained some interesting comments on the response to Katrina, the state of preparedness today, and the performance of DHS.
When asked why the Coast Guard fared so well in the response to Katrina in comparison with other agencies, he noted:
In my opinion, the operational genius of the Coast Guard is still that we give our field commanders a mission, an area of responsibility, and their own resources and assets, such as cutters and aircraft, and then we leave it up to them. Our field commanders are responsible for assessing the threats in their regions and reacting accordingly, and they don’t require any higher approval to do so. Of course, if an operation goes south because of their judgments, we also hold them accountable.
Exactly! As I’ve argued previously, this is precisely the type of organizational culture that we need in emergency response today: giving people the tools and training, but when they’re out in the field, allowing them to be flexible and creative, and not dealing with excessive bureaucracy.
He also responds to a question about general problems that have afflicted DHS:
Well, in a way, DHS is the agency that democracy produced. The original Homeland Security Act that was signed in December of 2002 had some very aggressive timelines associated with it, for instance, yet at the time it was signed, Congress was between sessions and the federal government was in the middle of its fiscal year. That created enormous challenges for a department that was just standing up and trying to get the bricks-and-mortar right and figure out where everybody should be located.
Despite that challenge, however, I think we’ve made more progress than is generally known. In our first two years of operation at DHS, for instance, we were able to aggregate all of our handgun purchases and issue a national handgun contract for all of the various agencies, which is pretty significant. We’ve also bundled a number of large software purchases. Those things may not be very visible to the public, but they represent significant incremental improvements.