Today, December 23rd, is when we celebrate Festivus. There is much to be learned about how to celebrate this day by reviewing how the Government Accountability Office treated DHS in 2014.
Here’s the headline that dragged me reluctantly into the Festivus spirit: “U.S. Not Fully Prepared For Nuclear Terrorist Attack Or Large-Scale Natural Catastrophe GAO Says.”
What in the name of all that is peace-and-goodwill-toward men could it possible mean to be “fully prepared for a nuclear terrorist attack?” How about being fully prepared for a “large scale natural catastrophe?” How do you do that? If you’re prepared, is it really a catastrophe?
True, it’s the Huffington Post’s headline writer not GAO that ruled on the nation’s inability to be ready for the end of the world. GAO’s actual headline is much more unassuming: “Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Interagency Assessments and Accountability for Closing Capability Gaps.”
If you read between the lines (and the report) you could see how the Huffington Post (and the dozens of other outlets that jumped into the story) could semi-plausibly, though not helpfully, reach the conclusion that life as we know it will end soon if we don’t get going on those capability gaps.
But an overt hatchet job is not GAO’s style.
A Washington friend once described the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as an agency that bayonets the wounded.
I believe that characterization is unkind.
GAO has a job to do. They watch things for Congress. They are not brutal. They are persistent, particular and as far away from petulance as it’s possible for one agency to be. There is a nobility to what they do and to how they express what they discover.
This is the time of year when we could all benefit from listening to what GAO has to teach about the right way to celebrate Festivus. Or at least what is arguably the most important part of Festivus: the “Airing of Grievances”.
The celebration of Festivus — according to Festivus officials — begins with the “Airing of Grievances”, which takes place immediately after the Festivus dinner has been served. It consists of each person lashing out at others and the world about how they have been disappointed in the past year.
If you are shy, anonymously write your grievances on a sticky note and post the note to the Festivus Pole. …
If your family and friends are shy and reserved types, keep the airing of grievances short, or possibly include a rule that the only personal grievances that can be aired must be directed to those who did not attend the gathering (fair game) or public figures such as politicians and celebrities (always fair game).
Of course DHS is required game – like putting up Christmas decorations while the children are out trick or treating.
For Festivus purposes, a grievance is “a complaint about a real or imaginary wrong that causes resentment and is grounds for action.”
According to GAO, it has aired over 2100 grievances about the Department of Homeland Security: “GAO has made over 2,100 recommendations to DHS since its establishment in 2003 to strengthen its management and integration efforts, among other things.”
Do the research. Behind each of those recommendations hides one or more grievances that require airing. Remedial action might follow. But that’s not the point. Or at least not as much of the point as the actual airing.
Done correctly and professionally, there is a subtlety about grievance airing. See if you can spot the disappointment, the sighs, even the sadness, in the following selection of 2014 GAO report titles (and the occasionally excerpt). Hear also the infinite echo of hopefulness that if DHS tries just a little more it could be doing just a little bit better.
The emphasis, in italics, is mine.
- DHS’s Efforts to Modernize Key Enforcement Systems Could be Strengthened – http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-62
- The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) role of collecting information and providing assistance on PII breaches, as currently defined by federal law and policy, has provided few benefits. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-34
- Until DHS … addresses the cybersecurity implications of the emerging technologies in planning activities, information systems are at an increased risk of failure or being unavailable at critical moments. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-125
- …DHS … officials acknowledge that they do not collect or assess data to determine whether the [Commercial Items] test program is used to the maximum extent practicable. As such, its limited use may indicate missed opportunities. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-178
- DHS Needs to Strengthen Its Efforts to Modernize Key Enforcement Systems http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-342T
- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has not identified or assessed fraud or noncompliance risks posed by schools that recommend and foreign students approved for optional practical training (OPT), in accordance with DHS risk management guidance. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-356
- GAO… has identified several key factors that are important for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to implement its partnership approach with industry to protect critical infrastructure. DHS has made some progress in implementing its partnership approach, but has also experienced challenges coordinating with industry partners that own most of the critical infrastructure. …more needs to be done to accelerate the progress made. DHS still needs to fully implement the many recommendations on its partnership approach (and other issues) made by GAO and inspectors general to address cyber challenges. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-464T
- DHS components have designed controls to help ensure compliance with the Department of the Treasury’s [Asset Forfeiture Fund] equitable sharing guidance, but controls could be enhanced though additional documentation and guidance. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-318
- DHS Could Better Manage Its Portfolio to Address Funding Gaps and Improve Communications with Congress http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-332
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has made progress in addressing high-risk areas for which it has sole responsibility, but significant work remains. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-532T
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has established mechanisms—including an intelligence framework and an analytic planning process—to better integrate analysis activities throughout the department, but the mechanisms are not functioning as intended. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-397
- DHS Needs to Better Address Port Cybersecurity http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-459
- DHS and CBP have established performance measures and reporting processes for the JFC and ACTT in Arizona and the STC in South Texas; however, opportunities exist to strengthen these [Southwest Border] collaborative mechanisms by assessing results across the efforts and establishing written agreements. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-494
- Continued Actions Needed to Strengthen [DHS] Oversight and Coordination of Research and Development http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-813T
- Improved Documentation, Resource Tracking, and Performance Measurement Could Strengthen [DHS Training] Efforts http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-688
- DHS Action Needed to Enhance Integration and Coordination of [Critical Infrastructure Protection] Vulnerability Assessment Efforts http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-507
- Additional Actions Needed to Determine Program Effectiveness and Strengthen Privacy Oversight Mechanisms http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-796T
- Federal Real Property: DHS and GSA Need to Strengthen the Management of DHS Headquarters Consolidation http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-648
- DHS OIG’s Structure, Policies, and Procedures Are Consistent with Standards, but Areas for Improvement Exist http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-726
- Combating Nuclear Smuggling: Risk-Informed Covert Assessments and Oversight of Corrective Actions Could Strengthen Capabilities at the Border http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-826
- DHS Is Assessing Fusion Center Capabilities and Results, but Needs to More Accurately Account for Federal Funding Provided to Centers http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-155
- DHS Should Take Steps to Improve Cost Reporting and Eliminate Duplicate Processing http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-82
- Improvements Needed to Fully Implement the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-3
- Federal and Transit Agencies Taking Steps to Build Transit Systems’ Resilience but Face Challenges http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-159
- Continued Action Needed to Strengthen Management of Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-95
- Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Interagency Assessments and Accountability for Closing Capability Gaps http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-20 — better known as “U.S. Not Fully Prepared For Nuclear Terrorist Attack Or Large-Scale Natural Catastrophe GAO Says.”
The circle closes. The grievances have been aired.
Now on to the Feats of Strength.