It’s said the entire world can be viewed as a signal-to-noise problem. That thought kept running through my mind last week as the news reports of DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s “State of Homeland Security” talk at the Wilson Center were overwhelmed by post-election analysis of the New Hampshire primaries and the unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
For those few of us who follow discussions of the business side of DHS operations, Johnson’s talk disclosed very little that would be deemed “new,” but it did provide a great deal of context to initiatives that will be the hallmark of his tenure as DHS Secretary – the “Unity of Effort” memorandum, which he issued shortly after becoming DHS Secretary in 2014.
It is fair to say that almost every public statement made by a DHS official since that time has referenced the “Unity of Effort” initiative and that includes Sec. Johnson’s comments. In his talk, Sec. Johnson called it the “centerpiece” of the DHS Management Reform efforts. He said:
“Though our people do extraordinary work, I know we must improve the manner in which the Department conducts business…My overarching goal as Secretary this last year is to continue to protect the homeland, and leave the Department of Homeland Security a better place than I found it.
“The centerpiece of our management reform has been the Unity of Effort initiative I announced in April 2014, which focuses on getting away from the stove pipes, in favor of more centralized programming, budgeting, and acquisition processes.
“We will improve the levels of employee satisfaction across the Department. We’ve been on an aggressive campaign to improve morale over the last two years. It takes time to turn a 22-component workforce of 240,000 people in a different direction. Though the overall results last year were still disappointing, we see signs of improvement.”
Johnson also talked about restructuring the National Protection and Programs Directorate from a headquarters component into an operational component called the “Cyber and Infrastructure Protection” Agency, something that is referenced in the President’s FY17 Budget request. (Unfortunately, it is unlikely to move forward given the gridlocked, dysfunctional way Congress has chosen to operate this year.)
Sec. Johnson is imminently likeable, and there is no question as to his intellect or intention to lead DHS to make changes that will help the Department work more effectively and efficiently. He is sincere, genuinely cares about the security and safety of American people, and easily articulates the need to provide greater security while preserving American values.
All of these traits come through watching him speak in public, whether before large audiences or in small groups. And he does not seem to tolerate small-mindedness nor “suffer fools” lightly. Unlike his predecessor, Janet Napolitano, who was unapologetically dismissive of them, Johnson has made a special effort to build a working relationship with Members of Congress. It is a slow process and Johnson is making some progress, but the calendar is working against him.
Something else is working against him, and he does not seem willing to admit it. Within the bowels of DHS, the “Unity of Effort” is widely viewed as nothing more than a “Unity of Rhetoric” initiative. In many quarters in Washington, repeating the same mantra will occasionally lead to acceptance and agreement. But in DHS, consistently low employee morale scores have led to a deep skepticism and a risk-averse reaction by non-politically appointed, career employees. One needs only to look at the large number of vacancies in DHS leadership positions – positions that Johnson has diligently tried to fill with little help from the inept White House personnel operation.
DHS does not have an Assistant Secretary for Policy, nor does it have a Chief of the Border Patrol, and DHS hasn’t seemed to make an effort to fill those important positions. If Sec. Johnson was really as concerned about engaging the private sector as his most recent talk indicates, that message would get to the folks who manage the DHS website. Case in point, the DHS Leadership page still lists Jose Perales as Assistant Secretary for the Private Sector Office, although he left months ago.
Sec. Johnson’s comments about reforming the DHS Acquisition processes would be welcomed by program managers, policy makers, and private sector contractors IF there was a belief that it made doing business with DHS easier, with greater accountability. But even DHS officials don’t seem to have bought into the Secretary’s vision.
On the same day that Sec. Johnson spoke at the Wilson Center, DHS’s Assistant Secretary of Health Affairs/Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kathryn Brinsfield testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on biological detection and surveillance programs (mostly about the ill-managed BioWatch program). She was asked by Subcommittee Chair Rep. Martha McSally and Ranking Member Donald Payne when OHA anticipated releasing a new procurement for modernized bio-detection technology, noting that the existing system was several decades old.
Brinsfield was candid in saying that OHA hoped to get through the DHS internal processes so that it might be included in the FY18 budget request. What she really said was they wanted to “kick the can down the road” to the next Administration, virtually ignoring the bipartisan commentary that the process did not match the serious warnings of the economic impact a bio-terrorism event might have.
Undersecretary for Science & Technology Dr. Reggie Brothers, who also testified at the hearing, ratified Brinsfield’s comments by focusing almost exclusively on “processes and procedures” in S&T research rather than impacts or results that might be mitigated by new technologies. As I listened to them in the hearing room, I had to wonder if they had seen Sec. Johnson’s comments delivered a few hours before their Hill testimony.
This is just one of a multitude of examples where the rhetoric by the head of DHS doesn’t seem to percolate throughout the body of the Department. It is not for a lack of sincere leaders. It is not solely because of skepticism by those who are in the middle to lower rungs of the organizational chart. Both factor into the serious problem of delivering effective leadership. Good leaders need good followers and right now, there is a disconnect.
So while Sec. Johnson made an excellent speech, for Johnson or his successor to make a speech in February 2017 that has the same optimistic tone, the people in DHS and the private sector have to see results in 2016—not just rhetoric. Without it, Sec. Johnson’s goal of making DHS a better place than he found it will not be realized.