Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 31, 2012

If Thad Allen ran DHS

Filed under: Organizational Issues — by Christopher Bellavita on July 31, 2012

The homeland security enterprise got a glimpse of what DHS might look like if Thad Allen becomes the Secretary of Homeland Security.

He testified a few weeks ago at a senate hearing about “The Evolution of the Homeland Security Department’s Roles and Missions.”

Here’s some of what he had to say in his written statement.


Allen reminded people how quickly DHS got started 10 years ago. The perception of urgency in 2002 meant “little time was available for deliberate planning and thoughtful consideration of available alternatives” for establishing the Department.

The consequence of “fire before aiming?”

Basic mission support functions of the department such as financial accounting, human resource management, real property management, information resource management, procurement, and logistics were retained largely at the component level in legacy systems that varied widely. Funding for those functions was retained at the component level as well. In those cases where new entities were created (i.e. Departmental level management and operations, the Under Secretary for Science and Technology, the Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office) support systems had to be created rapidly to meet immediate demands of mission execution. Finally, components and departmental offices that did not preexist the legislation were located in available space around the Washington DC area and the Secretary and number of new functions were located at the Nebraska Avenue Complex in Northwest Washington.

The result was an organizational mess.

According to Allen,

Many of these issues persist today, ten years later. Despite several attempts to centralize and consolidate functions …, most support functions remain located in departmental components and the funding to support those functions remains in their appropriations. Because of dissimilarities between appropriations structures of components transferred from legacy departments there is a lack of uniformity, comparability, and transparency in budget presentations across the department. As a result it is difficult to clearly differentiate, for example, between personnel costs, operations and maintenance costs, information technology costs, and capital investment….”

Allen outlines other structural and process problems that have “severely constrained the ability [of] the Department [to] mature as an enterprise.”

What to do about it?

In the May/June issue of Public Administration Review (subscription required), Allen wrote an article called “Confronting Complexity and Leading Unity of Effort.”  The title summarizes the approach he’d take to remedy the structural disarray that is DHS.

I proposed that the major emerging challenge of public administration and governing is the increased level of complexity we confront in mission operations, execution of government programs, and managing non-routine and crisis events. Driving this complexity are rapid changes in technology, the emergence of global community, and the ever-expanding human-built environment that intersects with the natural environment in new more extreme ways.

So far nothing very new here. Just another statement from someone stuck in what Sebastian Gorka, Michael J. Gallagher, and Joshua A. Geltzer call the Complexity Trap [one of the few articles I’ve found that challenges the assumption almost everything interesting is complex.]

Allen moves away in his testimony from the theoretical and suggests what his complexity analysis could mean for DHS: as a unit of analysis, DHS may be too small.

No single department, agency, or bureau has the authorizing legislation, appropriation, capability, competency or capacity to address complexity alone. The result is that most government programs or services are “co-produced” by multiple agencies. Many involve the private/non-governmental sector, and, in some cases, international partners. Collaboration, cooperation, the ability to build networks, and partner are emerging as critical organizational and leadership skills. Homeland Security is a complex “system of systems” that interrelates and interacts with virtually every department of government at all levels and the private sector as well. It is integral to the larger national security system. We need the capabilities, capacities and competency to create unity of effort within the Department and across the homeland security enterprise.

Allen is unwilling to wait for complexity and the magic of emergence to produce unity of effort in the system of systems that is the homeland security. He wants to create unity of effort. He’s shifting from a managerial toward a leadership perspective.

What is Allen’s vision for DHS?

As we look forward to the next decade I would propose we consider two basic simple concepts: Mission execution and mission support. Mission execution is deciding what [you do] and how to do it. Mission support enables mission execution.

For the mission execution piece of the vision, Allen wants to take another look (through the next QHSR) at what DHS is responsible for.

[T]here should be a baseline assessment of the current legal authorities, regulatory responsibilities, treaty obligations, and current policy direction (i.e. HSPD/NSPD). I do not believe there has been sufficient visibility provided on the broad spectrum of authorities and responsibilities that moved to the department with the components in 2003….

Once that’s done, he wants to look at how homeland security missions still worth pursuing are carried out, and “without regard to current stove piped component activities.”

Using borders as an example, Allen writes

…envision the border as an aggregation of functions across physical and virtual domains instead of the isolated and separate authorities, jurisdictions, capabilities, and competencies of individual components.

Resilience also would get a new, expanded look:

Instead of focusing on “insuring resiliency to disasters” we should focus on the creation and sustainment of national resiliency that is informed by the collective threat/risks presented by both the natural and human built environments. The latter is a more expansive concept than “infrastructure” and the overall concept subsumes the term “disaster” into [the] larger problem set that we will face. This strategic approach would allow integration of activities and synergies between activities that are currently stove piped within FEMA, NPPD, and other components. It also allows cyber security to be seen as activity that touches virtually every player in the homeland security enterprise.”

Allen succinctly illustrates the mission support element of his DHS vision this way:

…[W]hen you go to work … every day you [do] one of two things: you either execute the mission or you support the mission…. [If] you cannot explain which one of these jobs you are doing, then we have done one of two things wrong … we haven’t explained your job properly or we don’t need your job.

How to accomplish the vision Allen sets out?

… I see three possible ways forward. The desirable course of action would be build the trust and transparency necessary for the Department and components to [collectively] agree to rationalize the mission support structure and come to agreements on shared services. The existing barriers are considerable but the first principals of mission execution apply here as well … unambiguous, clearly communicated strategic intent and unity of effort supported by transparency and exploitation of information. A less palatable course of action is top down directed action that is enforced through the budget process. The least desirable course of action is externally mandated change.

I think what that paragraph says to the people in DHS is “You’ve been building this agency for a decade. Get your act together internally and fix what you know is not working. If you don’t do it on your own, you will be directed to do it either through the budget or through law.”

I don’t believe the last two options can work. They depend on control, and I think the evidence — including DHS’s first decade — is very clear: deliberate control is not a property of a complex social system, like homeland security.

The first option might work. But it’s up to the men and women inside DHS and the enterprise to make it work. That takes leadership. Not leaders.

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Comment by Greg Shaw

July 31, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

Kudos to Admiral Allen for his pragmatic vision and recommendations for improving DHS that step beyond the current bureaucratic quagmire and parochialism that permeate the Department. Hopefully he will be called upon to lead the Department in the not too distant future.

Comment by John Comiskey

July 31, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

First, I apologize for my brief comments. This is a critical post.

I worked for USCG Commandant Allen indirectly. I felt as though I worked for him directly. I bought him a beer in NOLA in 2010 though.

Allen should be the next Sect. of DHS or President.

Allen’s comments affirm my belief that DHS is trying to be (or made to be) a Jack of all trades and a master of none.

No one is asking what are we doing that is not essential. More importantly, why are we not cutting those programs?

DHS was asked to do a lot in short order. Let’s stop reacting and start acting like grownups.

Semper Paratus

Comment by John F. Morton

July 31, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

The next-generation homeland security enterprise is greater than DHS and the Federal interagency axis of governance. It has a vertical intergovernmental dimension in this Federal Republic of three levels of sovereignty. City fire chiefs are not in the President’s chain of command. They are not in their governors’ either. Moreover, the enterprise includes the private sector and NGO mission partners. Everyone understands these points are elemental. Why then do we always assume that the starting point for next-gen HLS is putting the Federal house in order first before taking it to the states and locals? Ought we not think about options like starting with governors and states first? Or going one step further and driving security and resilience from the bottom up? Isn’t this approach what Craig Fugate means when he talks about networks of community resilience? The Federal government will not put its HLS house in order as long as it has to deal with the debt crisis, budget woes and the future of the dollar as the centerpiece of the international monetary system. Those are the real priorities these days and may well remain so, notwithstanding the Admiral’s well considered analysis.

Comment by Tom dipalma

September 11, 2012 @ 11:16 am

Admiral Thad Allen (retired) was a great leader when he served on active duty. One of his legacies was the Coast Guard’s “Deployable Operations Group”.

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