The Post’s Stephen Barr reviews a new book entitled “Meeting the Challenge of 9/11: Blueprints for More Effective Government” today, one which he argues provides important lessons for the leaders of the Department of Homeland Security. His review focuses on a chapter of the book on the role of the Undersecretary of Management at DHS:
Dean and Ink discuss the importance of having a senior official in large agencies focused on management issues — such as accounting and finance, procurement, personnel, technology and property. They point to the undersecretary of management in the Department of Homeland Security as the kind of post that can help a Cabinet secretary succeed in pulling together internal operations.
As part of their review of the undersecretary’s job at Homeland Security, they recommend that the department ensure the job, which will probably be held by a political appointee, has a sidekick from the career ranks who can provide continuity during presidential transitions.
Dean and Ink also contend that too many jobs in the Homeland Security undersecretary’s office have been reserved for political appointees. “With respect to fighting terrorism overseas, there is recognition of the value of depending on professional career military leaders who serve under a small number of political policy leaders in Washington. Why should professional career leadership be any less critical for protecting our homeland against terrorism?” they ask.
They add, “It is essential that the management of homeland security not be politicized.”
That, however, appears to be happening. Members of Congress have questioned whether the position of undersecretary is needed at Homeland Security, in part because the deputy secretary has a strong hand in day-to-day operations. Congress also has cut funding requests for the undersecretary’s office, usually to reorder priorities. (Only one person has ever held the undersecretary position, and she left in May.)
This last paragraph is a correct assessment of the current conventional wisdom about the role of an Undersecretary for Management, confirmed by the fact that DHS hasn’t shown any real urgency to replace Janet Hale over the last seven months, since March when she announced her resignation. I think there is still an unsettled debate about whether this position is necessary, or if instead it’s more appropriate for the other C-level officials at DHS – CFO, CIO, CHCO – to report directly to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary. From an organizational design perspective, I’m inclined to favor the latter perspective, since the CFO, CIO, and CHCO need direct access to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary on the org chart if key initiatives are going to get the attention and priority that they deserve. If these officials are two levels away from the Secretary’s office on the org chart (and compounding the problem, in offices across town) then it’s more likely that key Department-wide financial, human capital, and IT initiatives will languish.