By Michael Beland

With Election Day behind us, Washington is engaging in the Potomac Two-Step that is the Interregnum—with one foot dancing to the tune of the 112th Congress and the other to the potential activities of the 113th. There are areas, especially in the homeland security arena, where the Executive and Legislative Branches should plan to work together to make significant progress for the country in the next Congress.

Congress and the Department of Homeland Security can and should continue to cooperatively bolster the efficiency of the Department’s internal management operations. Current DHS leadership is making progress in this regard, but it is essential that Congress increase its emphasis on this important area to develop a stronger organization. A focus on improving DHS management functions and operations over the next two years in a nonpartisan manner will enhance operational capabilities.

There is consistent and understandable criticism about the multiple Congressional Committees with jurisdiction over DHS. There seems to be little appetite on the Hill for resolving this issue. With that said, a pragmatic approach to improving the management functions and operations of DHS may lead to a more unified approach to how Congress oversees DHS in the short-term. Members may cooperatively see this as an opportunity to roll-up their sleeves to work with DHS to help it run more smoothly.

Congress has devoted much of its oversight of the Department to more operational matters, and this makes sense given DHS’ massive operational mission. Having spent time working at DHS and on the Hill, however, I firmly believe that Congress should equally focus on making sure that DHS is functioning as effectively as possible. This will help Congress have increased transparency into the Department because it will have a better understanding of its daily workings and vast operational demands. The protocols in need of improvement include a streamlined on-boarding process; coherent suitability procedures; and monitoring whether the Department is hiring and retaining strong employees who see growth and developmental opportunities there.

In the current Congress, for example, most hearings held by the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees primarily focused on operational activities of the Department and the evolution of the threat landscape. In a few cases, the morale and management of DHS received the spotlight that hearings create. As an example, the House Homeland Committee Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management held a handful of hearings about the morale at the Department, but, unfortunately, that is generally the exception to the rule. A review of the hearing schedules from the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees shows that there is a great deal more emphasis on operations rather than functions and operations impacting the workforce. It is a positive sign that the incoming Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security in the U.S. House of Representatives, Michael McCaul (R-TX), is interested in improving the management functions and operations of DHS, and I am hopeful that his oversight in this area is done in a constructive, non-partisan way.

In her testimony before the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security Appropriations earlier this year, the Secretary highlighted a number of areas where DHS is making itself a more efficient organization. Congress should see how it can help the Department take further steps. Key questions that Congress and DHS should be answering to make a stronger, more operationally effective Department include:

  • Are high-performing DHS employees staying in the Department? Generally speaking, who is leaving, for where, and after how many years? This can help to determine whether people see a career path at the Department—which Congress should see as an important step towards its goal of a stronger DHS.
  • Notwithstanding that DHS obviously deals in matters of national security, does it have unnecessary procedures to on-board employees and contractors? If effective practices can be adopted that maintain operational security while making the hiring process more efficient, DHS and Congress should work together to make this happen.
  • Are there technology and acquisition practices across the U.S. Government that can be adopted by DHS to make it easier for companies to do business with it?
  • Do the elements of risk—threat, vulnerability, and consequence—truly inform how
  • resource-allocation decisions are made at DHS? Congress should request that DHS show it how this process is done as it will help to conserve dollars while applying them where there are intolerable risks. This will create a far more defensible budgetary process that could become the gold standard in the U.S. government. Parts of DHS are taking significant steps in this direction, and they should be highlighted and leveraged. The state of the Federal budget necessitates internal processes for allocating resources based upon risk. The Department should discuss its effective practices, and Congress should help it apply those lessons across DHS.
  • How does the agency plan ahead through multi-year strategic budget planning so that programs have the certainty and capacity to continue on more than a piecemeal basis? Is DHS adequately engaging its private sector, state, and non-governmental-organization partners in these efforts?
  • Some DHS components and agencies have stronger human capital, budgetary, security, and similar back-office functions than other parts of the organization. How can these successful practices be shared across the entire organization? What sort of communication exists or needs to exist to enhance these functions department-wide?
  • How are officials from the Department—from program managers to leadership—rewarded for successfully executing projects without spending all of the resources allocated so the monies can be returned to the Treasury? This is especially important during these austere times when efficiencies are essential to government success.
  • Are there effective practices and systems in information technology that should be applied throughout DHS?

In addition to the two branches focusing on the above, I think it would be helpful if they worked to develop a program—a Legislative-Executive Action Partnership—where management officials from DHS do one-year rotations with relevant committee staffs and where similar staff from the Hill complete assignments at management offices in the Department. Currently similar rotations are done on an ad hoc basis, and the assignments are more operationally focused rather than managerially. A rotational program focused on management will provide additional perspective and will help to meaningfully inform the actions of both branches while increasing the emphasis on the Department’s managerial processes and procedures.

Each year, the Partnership for Public Service publishes a “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.” Its website says its rankings “draw on responses from more than 266,000 civil servants to produce a detailed view of employee satisfaction and commitment across 308 federal agencies and subcomponents.” In 2011, DHS ranked 31st among 33 agencies, and its score dropped from the previous year. The prior administration did not perform any better on such surveys.

As a former department employee, it is important to note the flaws in these surveys, which include low response rates and a lack of clarity as to how terms are defined. Nevertheless, the results demonstrate the need for a dialogue between the branches about how improvements are being made and what else can be done. DHS should describe the great strides it is taking at places such as the National Protection and Programs Directorate in response to the survey results, and Congress should think about how those practices can be used by other parts of DHS. With the 2012 report due later this month, it may serve as a good mechanism to begin a nonpartisan conversation.

Politics always exist, but there are areas where people should roll-up their sleeves and get to work—and homeland security is certainly among them. A constructive conversation between DHS and Congress on matters of management can help to further Legislative-Executive cooperation and will help to keep Americans safe by improving DHS’ ability to recruit, hire, and retain an effective workforce. If Congress and DHS can focus more on the allegedly mundane details of running such a large organization, DHS will be even more effective at executing its mission and the role of Congress in the homeland security context laudably redefined.

Michael Beland is a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. He previously served as the Chief of Staff at the DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection.

  • KP

    Spot on recommendations. We need more people like the author who are willing to give the Department what it so desperately needs – constructive attention.