There is reason to be encouraged about the Department of Homeland Security’s transition process. I’ve already written about some of the steps the Department has taken, the most recent of which is naming RADM John Acton, USCGR as the Department’s transition manager under Elaine Duke. John is an excellent choice – thoughtful, capable and someone who is not jockeying for a position in the new administration.
But even more hopeful is the broader debate among think tanks, journalists, policymakers and pundits about the proper future of the Department and the next administration’s approach to homeland security. The Homeland Defense Journal recently published the results of a survey of homeland security professionals about the future of homeland security. Last week, they also sponsored a half day program on transition where Congressmen Cuellar and Langevin spoke and cogently discussed what they see as priorities during and after the transition. Not surprisingly, the Center for American Progress and the ThirdWay are preparing thoughtful briefing papers for the next administration as are other think tanks around Washington.
What I have seen and heard in these endeavors are thoughtful, informed discussions about the best ideas for homeland security. Remarkably, regardless of the forum, these discussions have not been discernibly partisan, an observation which underscores a long held belief of mine that security issues should not – and historically, have not been – overtly partisan.
But not all is rosy. At some of the same fora, I hear ill-informed and downright silly comments from people who should know better. Usually these are people whose primary role is as a political advisor and who are attempting to discuss homeland security without having given the topic much serious thought. They typically resort to hackneyed slogans and examples that do little to promote our national homeland security agenda. When I hear these people expound on homeland security, I get worried. The next president will have a choice to make – will he put people in charge of the homeland security transition who see it as a partisan political issue or professionals who are dedicated to ensuring homeland security moves in the right direction regardless of partisan ties?
The upshot of these discussions is that there is a consensus, or at least some common themes, developing in both political camps about the future of the Department and homeland security more generally.
• Prepare For Day One. The challenge here is to move beyond the “rah-rah” rhetoric to focus on reality. Such action requires a nuts and bolts approach to preparation, including early identification of key political appointees, identification and transfer of career professionals into the right positions, rapid ramp-up of key players, and execution of exercises (and more exercises) during transition.
• Avoid Wholesale Reorganization. Give the Department a chance to catch its breath and institutionalize processes. But also reduce the number of direct reports to the Secretary and increase the authority and responsibility of other senior leaders in the Department.
• Settle The Existential Question That the Department Has Responsibility For All Hazards. While we must plan for and protect against catastrophic man made events, the reality is that when we plan and prepare for other catastrophes that are natural in origin, we simultaneously advance our capacity to deal with the less probable but more catastrophic terrorist events.
• Combine The Homeland Security Council (HSC) Into The National Security Council (NSC). Even veterans of this administration see this as a smart move, the caveat being that whoever has responsibility for the “HSC portfolio” must have ready access to the President.
• Streamline Congressional Oversight. At the risk of sounding “flip,” this is a “no-brainer.” Congress itself understands the dysfunction the current system creates.
• Increase The National Focus On Resiliency. This is one of the strongest points of consensus. While the devil is in the details, there is still widespread recognition that, should there be an attack, we must restore our various systems quickly and minimize impact on our economy and way of life.
• Identify And Sharpen Our Focus On Our Priorities. While the debate over what our priorities are and should be will continue, there is significant agreement that we must do a better job identifying and sharpening our focus on these priorities.
• Draw On Experience. Perhaps most heartening to me as a career federal employee is a recognition of the tremendous talent and knowledge resident in the career work force, both federal and non- federal. The challenge here is to identify talented leaders among these folks and to restore the confidence and morale of the career workforce.
What I still haven’t heard from either campaign yet is a commitment to establish an enlightened transition team. It’s not too early for both candidates to commit to this task and to outline the steps for a serious transition process.