Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 6, 2014

A Déjà vu debate about DHS

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Dan OConnor on May 6, 2014

It’s Déjà vu all over again.  With all due consideration given to Yogi Berra, the recent series of articles in the Albuquerque Journal about homeland security — as Phil Palin noted on Monday – should not surprise  anyone.  In the main article, MISSION CREEP: Homeland Security a ‘runaway train’ by Michael Coleman the author argues that DHS is ineffective and an unhappy place to work.

Mission Creep

The term mission creep refers to an expansion of a project or mission beyond its original scope and goals.   Mission creep is universally considered undesirable due to the dangerous path of each success breeding more ambitious attempts, only stopping when a final, often catastrophic, failure occurs. The military experience in the United States Post World War II is littered with mission creep style failures of execution and policy.

DHS mission creep is suspected because the growth of personnel and budget in the last decade indicates a lot more of “something” is taking place that was not taking place previously.  Coleman points out the increase of DHS personnel from 180,000 in 2003 to 240,000 in 2014.  He also points out the budget has doubled.  On the one hand that is to be expected.  No one really believed that Full Time Equivalents (FTE) and budgetary requirements would remain fixed.  Mission analysis, codifying requirements, and building out bureaucracy requires funding and personnel.  On the other hand, the mission set and definition is ambiguous and malleable.  That would indicate a lot of opportunity to do other tasks.

In the search for perfect safety and security many, many things not considered homeland security centric are in fact becoming so.

Coleman’s AJ article has a similar tone to an article that was in the Washington Post in December, 2013:  DHS has many unfilled jobs and poor morale By Joe Davidson

The mission creep and perhaps much of the growth and “capability” may not have gone towards executing the original intent of the DHS; the primary mission of the department is to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States; reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism; minimize the damage, and assist in the recovery from terrorist attacks that do occur within the United States.

The sarcastic part of me doesn’t see the nexus of raiding an Ohio movie theatre to snatch a Google glass wearing patron with stopping Al Qaeda planning and executing attacks in the United States.  I am sure in a six degrees of separation sort of way, it does.

The overt militarization of Law Enforcement (another article in the AJ series) is also a manifestation of leaning forward against the terrorist threat.   But I am a meta hazards proponent and find many issues that have a homeland security link.  But perhaps that’s the differentiation; just because things are connected to homeland security does not make them mission sets for the Department of Homeland Security.

The original piece in the Albuquerque Journal goes on the say that DHS is a “…runaway train…” a “…colossal and inefficient boon doggle…”, and an organization that is so large that it”… actually making work…”  Those are strong points of view.  A counter argument might be that it is premature to assess the efficacy of the DHS.  It is an immature organization, presumably charged with maintaining perfect security, perfect safety and has zero tolerance for errors or mistakes.  That, in and of itself is a tall task.

DHS Morale

There is another part of this discussion that affects the culture and effectiveness of DHS; it’s not a happy place.  Does that matter?

According to the annual surveys given to Federal employees it matters; a lot!  The Department of Homeland Security ranked #19 out of 19 large agencies in 2013, with an index score of 46.8 out of 100.  This is not an anomaly but a consistent ranking according to the Partnership for Public Service.  And it continues to trend negatively, year after year.  Taking 22 different cultures and kluging them together with a nebulous and often abstractly defined mission may be a cause.   The “arranged” marriage of various LEO, Intelligence, and Military cultures with some over 200 years old, and others created by DHS prohibited any real opportunity to listen and respect one another.

Combined with competition for budget, mission space, and the politics of our Executive Branch and Legislative houses make it near impossible to grow past often competing cultures, Congressional districts, and mission spaces.   DHS culture is one of petulance in most cases.   It all bleeds over the work force.  Fear, lack of trust, and lack of respect paint every study, paper, and leadership email about changing the culture.  That could be a reason it is not a good place to work.    Another reason could be no one is really sure what the definition of Homeland Security is.

“The lack of a precise definition for homeland security is insignificant” or so said former DHS Secretary Napolitano.  Who knew?    Homeland Security is both precise and imprecise.  It is also highly quantitative and qualitative.  How do these competing points of view exist?  If Homeland Security is only terrorism prevention than why all the focus on so many other vectors?    In biting comments some say that the Homeland Security mission is contrived and/or artificial.   The term security theater comes to mind. The term security theater was coined by computer security specialist and writer Bruce Schneier for his book Beyond Fear.  If this is a consensus amongst DHS employees, several who recently took part in a focus group on DHS morale, than the likelihood of the attitude being systemic is real and not imagined.

The words nepotism, cronyism, and overt political appointee presence float around often.  Some point towards components and their leaders being implicated in some degree of fabrication and misrepresentation with regard to hiring practices, changing standards, and taking direction from “others” to fill vacancies.  Position descriptions are changed and referral lists are discarded regularly if the “right name” is not on it.  People are routinely left off referrals, and regularly dismissed.   Should anyone truly be surprised though?  It’s an imperfect system and rules put in place to dissuade these practices in fact may actually reinforce them.  By definition DHS may even be a Complex Adaptive System.  And in that complexity lays the friction points that render it placing last year after year.

The cognitive dissonance of leadership is stifling. People who believe themselves to have all the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities are competing with others who are entrenched and have no intention of leaving.  The perverse necessity for political appointees at the highest levels of DHS limits any strategic career path by and large.  And those who may be driven to overachieve are, generally speaking, demonized for overachievement.  So if there is little incentive to pursue education, training, and experiences to enhance ones abilities then what’s the point?  It is folly to assume that this is a pure function of leadership.  On the other hand a strong set of hands on the reigns may plow a better row.

The relationship of an extended partisan and ineffective Congress, political appointees, many leadership vacancies, and an ill-defined mission creates the circumstances of disharmony and discord.  It’s too easy to dismiss the ranking of DHS as the worst place to work in the Federal Government simply because it is full of recalcitrant malcontents.  The more likely reason is the “law” of unintended consequences.  Combining so many different and disparate cultures, missions, persons, and committees in the hopes of preventing a black swan event has yielded discord, disharmony, and potentially created the conditions for another.  In an environment where the expectation is perfection, the likelihood of failure is exceedingly high.

We will see another article similar to the two referred to above again.  DHS will again finish last in the Federal Government as the worst place to work.  And we will debate/discuss the reasons why.

It will be Déjà Vu all over again.

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