In one of her first appearances on Capitol Hill since becoming DHS’ Under Secretary for Science & Technology, Tara O’Toole showed herself to be in complete comfort with the issues and challenges that face her.  Her demeanor and candor at a FY2011 Budget Hearing before the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cyber Security and Science & Technology, also exhibited calm, cool and collected confidence in the programs she has inherited. This is just the reassurance that many from industry were looking for.

Unlike her predecessor, Jay Cohen, who took over DHS S&T in the midst of leadership upheavals, programmatic turmoil and serious questions about S&T’s mission, Dr. O’Toole has a much more stable organization to work with. While there are those who might have hoped that during her first budget hearing as Under Secretary Dr. O’Toole might reveal some dramatic newsworthy program announcement or restructuring of the way S&T does business. The fact that she didn’t is still newsworthy. It means that S&T will remain fairly calm and that by itself is a good thing for everyone.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be some changes.

She spoke quite frankly about the need to have better program performance measures for the various efforts her Directorate was working. Rather than avoiding the pains of measuring progress, she seemed to embrace the challenge of trying to come up with various metrics by which DHS components, the Congress, fellow researchers and the American taxpayer could see what they were getting for their investments.

What was also comforting to hear from an industry perspective were her comments about meeting with various leaders from the public and private sectors working in the R&D arena and learning how they measured success. While noting that each of them did different things, she shared that they were all consistent in their observations that measuring success is “really, really hard.”

The fact that she took the initiative to meet with these folks, prior to taking over as Under Secretary, says a whole lot. With no trappings of official office or political handlers that will paint only the rosiest of portraits for her, O’Toole demonstrated the confidence in wanting to hear what others are doing, a willingness to learn from those approaches, and an ability to take a shot at trying something new. These are just the things that make for any good researcher and scientist. They are also the makings of a good practicing physician “that would tell it like it is” (which O’Toole was), as observed Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) when it came his time to question her.

For industry, her words and demeanor laid it out quite clearly: what you see is what you get. She was ready, willing and able to work with any of them on the really tough assignments and priorities, and timelines for her Directorate would be clear. Aside from the regular questions about, and the professed commitments to work with, small businesses, the only other real news I heard regarded the future of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO).

Carved out of S&T several years ago, DNDO was chartered to work on the research and deployment of technologies to detect radiological/nuclear materials that could be used by terrorists in the United States (e.g., ports, etc.).  Championed by then-Vice President Cheney, DNDO has been a sore spot for many who felt its efforts belonged back in S&T, rather than as a stand-alone organization, which it is today.

Its days of organizational independence may be numbered though. Dr. O’Toole mentioned that the DNDO research and development efforts would be falling back under the authority of the S&T Directorate. She also shared that within 60 or so days, additional structural decisions about S&T would be made available.

(My colleagues and I at Catalyst Partners have long thought that when the Administration changed from Bush to Obama, it was only a matter of time before DNDO went back under the S&T framework on a permanent basis.)

While there were no verbal fireworks or dramatic finger-wavings to speak of, it what was an overly cordial, easy-lift budget hearing. O’Toole’s remarks spoke to the continuation of the IPT (Integrated Program Teams) that have been in operation at S&T for the past several years.  That by itself was a powerful vote of confidence in how S&T is doing its job.

There will always be naysayers and habitual bottle-throwers angry about something they don’t like, but when you have a budget hearing and there are no raised voices, verbal condemnations and no one’s blood pressure is elevated to dangerous levels, that is, as Martha Stewart might say, “a good thing.”

It’s also a vote of confidence in leadership, and that was given loud and clear.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More