By Douglas Doan
I have worked on border and security issues for almost 20 years, both in and out of the government, and have seen inspired efforts and more than a few terrible projects, that did nothing to help secure the border and make our Ports of Entry more efficient.
As Janet Napolitano takes over the reins at DHS, I began thinking about why some projects failed and some did not. The programs that failed, or seriously underperformed, all committed one of the seven deadly sins. In case you have forgotten your Sunday school lessons, the seven deadly sins are sloth, greed, lust, gluttony, wrath, envy and pride.
In the 14th century, when fear of the deadly sins was at its peak, committing any one was thought to lead straight to eternal damnation. Once you move past the scary part of eternal damnation, it turns out that the seven deadly sins are also at the core of just about every particular failure of our efforts to improve border security. Over the next few weeks, I intend to elaborate and describe how each of these different deadly sins has led to so many failed border security projects. Let’s start with deadly sin number one: sloth.
Sloth is defined as laziness and is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “absence of caring”. Sloth is a deadly sin and, quite sadly, laziness and the absence of caring from senior leaders responsible for border issues, has been at the core of many failures along the border for well over 20 years.
Many border security projects have suffered from the sloth, or indifference, of the senior political leaders responsible for their success. Far too often, senior leaders were unwilling to assume direct and full responsibility for their agency programs, and instead, delegated responsibility down to more junior, and less qualified, government officials, who then delegated responsibility down still further.
The responsibility of actual management of the program often landed on the desk of a junior civil servant, with little relevant experience. As a result, very few of the government’s major programs ever produced the anticipated benefits; all ran significantly over budget, and many ended in total failure.
For example, the Strategic Border Initiative (SBI), DHS’s most complicated and expensive effort along the border actually began some 20 years ago as the Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS). ISIS called for the installation of a virtual fence of cameras and sophisticated electronic intrusion systems to be installed along the border. Janet Reno, the cabinet officer responsible, delegated authority for the program down to Doris Meissner, the Commissioner of INS, who then delegated it down to others, who then did the same. In the end, the full responsibility fell to an unlikely fellow named Walt Drabik who had little experience and no technical background.
Senior leaders at INS and DOJ magnified the problem by never meeting directly with Drabik and only rarely travelling to the border to get a first hand impression on how the project was progressing. Border Patrol and Customs officers stationed along the border knew that the ISIS program was in trouble and that Washington had little understanding of how badly off track the program had become. When finally asked to provide some ideas that could salvage the project, one senior Border Patrol officer in Texas simply responded that the project was doomed until he saw “Drabik’s fat, bloated body floating face down in the Rio Grande.”
Drabik certainly had his faults, and there were many to choose from, but it would be unfair to make him the scapegoat for all the problems associated with designing and deploying a complicated border security program. For one, Drabik was not an engineer, had never worked on or near the border, and had never managed a large sophisticated technology project. He was wholly unsuited for managing a billion dollar sophisticated border project. But more importantly, Drabik inherited responsibility for the border surveillance system because no one else in the government was either willing or capable of doing the job. His direct supervisor, Fernanda Young, had even less experience with border issues and had only recently transferred from NASA when her aspirations for advancement as a career government employee stalled.
Predictably, the ISIS program ultimately collapsed with allegations of fraud. In the process, some $400 million of taxpayer money was lost or squandered, and even today the curious can drive out to a forgotten lot in southern Texas and see huge steel poles, once intended to be part of the government’s virtual fence that have been abandoned and are now slowly rusting away in the desert.
Sloth, and the absence of caring, is especially prevalent in many DHS contracting and acquisition efforts. Senior leaders, unfortunately, have all too often concluded that they needed to remain far above, and even further removed, from the important contractual decisions that were made by junior civil servants. Not too surprisingly, the government’s contracting decisions suffer as a result.
When the ISIS program morphed into SBI, sloth was once again existent. The Deputy Secretary of DHS, Michael Jackson, the most senior leader responsible for the program rarely concerned himself with the details and rarely visited the border to see for himself how the project was going. What a pity. Had Jackson been willing to assume direct and active responsibility for SBI, instead of delegating that responsibility down to others, he would have been able to more quickly resolve the many turf wars, and contractual issues, that plagued the program, resulting in multiple missed deadlines and exploding costs.
History does offer some good examples of senior leaders that have taken a direct and active interest in a complicated construction and building program, and there is no better example than Teddy Roosevelt and the building of the Panama Canal. President Roosevelt took a direct, hands-on approach, called the newly appointed manager responsible for completing the canal into the White House, and told him bluntly: “ I am going to make the dirt fly.”
Once the canal project got underway, Roosevelt remained personally involved. When it became clear he needed to change management, Roosevelt quickly dismissed members of the Canal commission on the basis that they were not sufficiently “businesslike, expeditious or systematic”, and then, personally selected new managers. The senior engineer met directly with Roosevelt in the White House on several different occasions. Roosevelt’s interest was deep, personal, and relentless.
Nor was there any confusion among anyone in the nation that the President was directly involved and was determined to in get the canal project completed on time. By contrast, Janet Reno, Secretary Chertoff, and even Deputy Secretary Jackson, rarely visited the border to personally view progress, and when they did, the visits were only for brief, well staged, media events.
Roosevelt knew that to get an accurate understanding of the Canal project he needed to talk directly to workers and escape the canned briefings and well organized, dog and pony shows that the senior canal staff had planned. Teddy simply disappeared, slipping the golden leash, and was only found, much later, gleefully splashing through the mud, making unannounced inspections of worker conditions, hospitals, mess halls and taking particular delight in the huge earth moving machines. By the end of his visit, the man picked by Roosevelt to lead the Canal effort reported that he had “blisters on both feet and was worn out,” trying to keep up with Teddy as he wandered about the Canal.
The obvious point here is that during his trip to Panama, Roosevelt with action and deed, underscored his commitment to the project and his desire to learn firsthand of the problems, challenges, and requirements. This message was received loud and clear. Workers in the Canal saw for themselves that the President was keen on getting the Canal competed on time and under budget. The immediate impact on morale was magical. To be sure, the engineering challenges, hostile work environment, disease and hardship all remained well after Roosevelt had departed from the Canal. But more importantly, the workers and engineers knew they were part of something important and the President was personally committed to their success, prompting one engineer to remark “with Teddy Roosevelt, anything is possible.”
My point here is that when senior leaders take a direct, personal and hands-on approach to critical projects under their control good things will happen. If, on the other hand, they are slothful and choose instead to avoid, ignore, and neglect…failure is certain.
Let’s hope that Secretary Janet Napolitano will take a direct and personal interest in her department’s border security projects and major procurements, that she will refuse to delegate the heavy lifting down the line, and that one day, soon, we will read about a project manager complaining that he/she has “blisters on his/her feet” trying to keep up with the Secretary as she tramps along the border.
Next up: gluttony.
Douglas Doan is a former DHS official in Private Sector Office. He served on the official U.S. Delegation responsible for negotiations with Mexico and Canada on the Security and Prosperity Plan and is now a member of the Border Trade Alliance Board of Directors.