The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is a year older. As a new DHS Secretary takes the helm, Security Debrief contributors came together for the First Chris Battle Homeland Security Colloquium. In the spirit of the late Chris Battle’s vision for debate and discussion on pressing homeland security matters, contributors weighed a series of important questions about DHS’ future. The topics raised were wide ranging, but a few priorities for the Department emerged.

Fix Public Opinion and Employee Morale

DHS suffers from a persistent negative public perception, which contributes to the Department’s low employee morale (the lowest in the Federal government). This poor image is in part politically driven, particularly when DHS leaders appear before Congress. Julie Myers Wood made the point that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees have at times been characterized by Congress as “Nazis,” a below-the-belt, inflammatory criticism of an agency charged by Congress with working through a broken immigration system. ICE isn’t alone in taking beatings from Congress, but what makes matters worse is that when preparing to testify, DHS leaders are explicitly told not to defend themselves. So long as Congress can get away with that kind of behavior, DHS will continue to suffer poor public opinion and low employee morale.

The Department’s image also suffers from the often-negative interactions the public has with TSA at the country’s airports, with expansive, sometimes-intrusive screening procedures raising the public’s ire. Part of the issue is that TSA does a miserable job of informing the public and press about why they use such screening tactics. Yet, air travel is dramatically safer today than it was on 9/11, something the Department has done right, David Olive noted. And other agencies have had successes; Steve Bucci said there has been improvement in the management and effectiveness of FEMA (which had its share of negative public attention in the past). But does the public appreciate all DHS has done to improve security and emergency response? They do not, and a large portion of the blame falls on DHS Public Affairs.

Kick Public Affairs to the Curb

For the Department overall, the public interaction has been so inept that Rich Cooper recommended firing the entire Public Affairs staff. “DHS Public Affairs is horrible,” he said, “And the leadership is terrible.” To overcome this, agency leaders should seek opportunities to build relationships with public stakeholders. (This writer noted, however, that while DHS PA may be awful in the aggregate, there have been some bright spots. Public Affairs readiness to speak with the public is relative to how much controversy surrounds how the agencies accomplish their respective mandates. S&T speaks openly; CBP, thoughtfully but sometimes guardedly; and TSA, rarely and with a defensive posture.)

Prepare for Immigration Reform’s Arrival

Contributors asked what DHS should look like on its 20-year anniversary in 2023. Multiple issues were raised, but one central topic was immigration. Even as Congress sits on its hands, there was acknowledgement that immigration reform will happen at some point, and when it does, it will become one of DHS’ largest and most demanding missions. Julie Myers Wood noted that immigration could consume the Department, but the danger there is that one component should not “run the show.” Ted Alden agreed that, particularly because two of DHS’ central functions have always been border security and immigration enforcement, whatever legislation eventually emerges from Congress will only underscore DHS’ role in immigration matters.

Look to the “We-be’s”

The new DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has his work cut out for him. While his first appearance before Congress showed him to be a prepared, thoughtful leader, all contributors concurred that the biggest question for Johnson is whether he will serve the DHS mission or the current administration. What is needed, the contributors said, is a secretary who dedicates himself wholeheartedly to the DHS mission, avoiding the kind of political spotlight in which former Secretary Napolitano typically found herself.

What is more, all contributors noted that Johnson should surround himself with strong, competent staff – the we-be’s (i.e., “We be here before you, and we be here after you,” also known as non-politically appointed employees). Janice Kephart said that Johnson has very little expert knowledge in much of what DHS does and recommend that he be willing to be educated. Steve Bucci added that Johnson should lead in a decentralized fashion, empowering his subordinates to drive DHS’ many missions. Jeff Sural also agreed that Johnson should put the right people in place and then rely on these “field generals” to push the Department forward.

Perhaps Rich Cooper most eloquently summarized the discussion and the collective advice (as only Cooper can): “Build a strong bench; serve the mission, not the president; and fire the entire Public Affairs operation.”