By Douglas Doan
The ancients believed that the sin of Pride was the most serious of the seven deadly sins, and would have little trouble seeing the havoc caused by the sin of pride at DHS. Pride (back to Sunday school for moment) was defined as a desire to be more important or attractive than others, failing to acknowledge the good work of others, and excessive love of self. The Sin of Pride is the most corrosive problem within DHS, causing a multitude of challenges and throttling performance. Here are three examples:
• Innovation has been stifled. All organizations struggle to be more innovative and finding better solutions to systemic problems, but DHS has actively opposed innovation. Indeed, the most creative efforts are almost always squashed by a culture of “not invented here”. “Not invented here” is a prideful ideology that values no other opinion than one’s own.
• Morale in DHS is lowest in Government: As a direct result of the “not invented here “ culture and the singular inability of senior management to encourage and reward innovative solutions from the rank and file, employee morale at DHS is, consistently, the lowest in the federal government. DHS employees quickly understand that management does not welcome new ideas. External input is not sought, desired, or welcome.
• DHS is unable to retain federal border agents. The government loses approximately 12% of federal border officers annually. No other agency has such a deplorable retention rate. The huge turnover in agents is not only grossly expensive, but turnover denies DHS the ability to build a coherent and effective team.
One of the sadder aspects of the sin of Pride at DHS has been the inability of senior leaders to connect, understand, and inspire the men and women that do most of the work at border crossings, airports, and assorted field offices across the country. Worse yet, history shows that the most innovative and creative field officers have been vilified and hounded from service. This trend is especially troubling since many of the breakthrough ideas on how best to secure the border originated from field officers assigned along the Mexico-Canadian borders, and not from senior managers located in Washington.
One of the most innovative ideas for securing the border came from Sylvester Reyes, who at the time, served as the Border Patrol Chief in El Paso, Texas. In 1993, Reyes took the bold step to completely rethink how that border was secured. Instead of following the old system that called for border patrol agents to apprehend as many illegals as possible after they crossed the border, Reyes ordered all border patrol agents in the El Paso Sector to deploy right along the border. The goal was to demonstrate a show of force to deter illegal aliens from attempting to cross.
Old metrics of success (measuring the number of apprehensions) was abandoned, and instead, Reyes wanted to measure how many fewer illegals decided to make the crossing. The strategy of deterrence worked. Almost overnight, crime rates in El Paso plummeted. Illegal crossing dropped to historic lows and Sylvester Reyes became a national sensation.
But, his success came at some personal cost. Reyes’s strategy of “Hold the Line” had no support from the senior officials in Washington. He had launched the idea on his own authority, and Washington leaders were furious. Initially, they wanted Reyes to cancel the initiative, but he refused. Then, as his plan produced visible and quantifiable results, senior officials in Washington began to take credit for Reyes’ “Hold the Line” strategy. The sin of pride, an inability to acknowledge the good work of others, was on full display.
Had senior leaders in Washington been wiser, they would have embraced and supported Reyes’ bold idea early and inspired other field officers. Successful organizations encourage innovation and risk taking, they do not destroy innovation. Successful organizations also protect and retain their most creative people by rewarding accomplishment, but that did not happen either. Perhaps frustrated by incompetent senior leaders in Washington, Reyes resigned as Chief of the El Paso Border Patrol and rode his popularity and success on the border to win a Congressional seat.
Other field officers that have tried to develop innovative solutions to complicated border issues have also been discouraged by Headquarters DHS. In Tucson, Arizona, a remarkable group of CBP officers helped design improved procedures for inspections at the Land Ports of Entry (POE).
Led by CBP Officer, John O’Reilly, these Arizona officers were the first to integrate federal reporting and inspection requirements with the safety requirements established by the state. O’Reilly was so successful, that not only did traffic move more swiftly, but his efforts, simultaneously, led to fundamentally improved and more advanced security efforts.
The automated targeting system for land based ports, first deployments of secure video, and secure wireless systems was first developed and deployed by O’Reilly and his “skunk works” team in Tucson. In fact, nearly all of the advanced CBP systems now under development were first conceived in Tucson by this remarkable group of field officers.
But the success of O’Reilly and his group of innovative CBP officers in Tucson irked the senior leaders in Washington. They were jealous and angry with the seemingly unending, new procedures and innovations that were being developed without the input of the senior CBP leadership team.
The senior leadership team, under Jayson Ahern, preferred a centralized, slow moving, dictatorial, top down approach. New Ideas were fine, as long as they originated from CBP headquarters and not field officers based along the border. Many large organizations are hindered by the misplaced reliance on the “not invented here” mentality, but CBP took it to remarkable extremes.
Innovation from field officers was squashed. The plug was pulled on O’Reilly’s skunk works and the CBP officers responsible for so many of the creative new ideas were soon encouraged to leave federal service.
When senior leaders are unable to recognize the achievements of others and, instead, create a culture of ‘not invented here’ the entire organization begins to stagnate. Good officers quickly learn that their ideas and input are undesirable. Morale plummets, and the organization suffers. It should be no huge surprise that each year, when federal employees are surveyed, DHS employees routinely score DHS as one of the worst places to work in the federal government.
Low morale organization never succeed and are incapable of superior performance. They are often plagued by other challenges such as high turnover of officers. New recruits, after completing the intensive and expensive training, are keen to move on (turn over within the Border Patrol is the highest in government at 12%), complicating the ability of DHS to ever build a first class organization with supremely motivated federal officers.
Small wonder that the sin of Pride was viewed as the worst of all the deadly sins. The “not invented here” culture, as exemplified by CBP, has had a devastating impact on performance.
And yet, of all the deadly sins discussed so far, Pride should be the easiest to correct. Indeed, the new leadership team at DHS might even be moving in the right direction and is almost certainly aware of need to change the ‘not invented here” culture.
Alan Bersin, the new border czar, was first tasked by President Clinton to try to duplicate the success of Sylvester Reyes’ “Hold the Line” at in the San Diego region in a program called “Operation Gatekeeper”.
Let’s hope Bersin learned from his previous, border experience that pride can kill innovation and morale, and that determined, highly motivated, and creative field officers are the single greatest asset in the nation’s efforts to secure the border.