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The legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security details the Department’s responsibilities, but it is not very prescriptive in the qualifications for the job of its Secretary. To date, four people have held the job. All of them had distinguished careers as elected leaders (two were former governors), prosecutors, judges, the military and the private sector. Those many skills, plus a splash of insanity for having to deal with Congress and its ridiculous oversight by 120+ committees, an unlimited supply of Zantac, a high degree of patience, and a skilled management acumen are probably the best descriptors for what one needs to do the job.

The fifth Secretary, like their predecessors, will have their hands full with a job that has more critics than friends. With that in mind, here are the top skills the next DHS Secretary will be require.

Cyber Vision & Chops – DHS is the Department of “Bad Day Management.” Bad days come in many forms, from acts of terror, natural disasters, industrial accidents and so on. If something is going wrong in the homeland, the President picks up the phone to call the person they put in charge at Nebraska Avenue.

Every one of those types of emergencies are complex but none of them is as complex or as interdependent as threats to the nation’s cybersecurity. We already know that the Russians, North Koreans, Iranians and other people who don’t like us have made attempts to hack into our power grids, dams, utilities, healthcare facilities, and personnel and business networks. Those Incursions, as well as growing and emerging capabilities by terrorists, criminal elements and other hacktivists, are growing at an exponential rate. The strikes of a single individual at a keyboard can have a larger and more detrimental impact to lives, operations, economies and security than the strike of a single bomb in a strategic location.

The next DHS Secretary must articulate the vision and skills to lead the next Administration in this dynamic threat environment. Because cyber is such an overtly technical, amorphous and asymmetrical threat, it’s extremely hard for the public, much less policymakers, to get their heads around it. As such, leading in an environment where everyone wants to be in charge but no one wants ultimate responsibility makes a tough job even tougher. The next Secretary is going to have to project the patience, skills and acumen to deal with the most dynamic threat facing the homeland.

Deal-Making with Congress – For more than a decade, DHS has been micromanaged by Congress to the detriment of its mission and morale. With more than 120 congressional committees all giving the Department’s leadership and staff dizzying and conflicting directions and guidance, the next Secretary (with the support of the White House) has got to say “Enough is enough!” House and Senate leaders of both parties have failed the Department in bringing order to this situation, and the new Secretary needs to cut a deal of some type to bring order to what can only be called “oversight chaos.”

Furthermore, the White House needs to give the Department’s leadership enough latitude to work with Congress on immigration and border security bills that both political parties want to see addressed. That does not mean the White House shouldn’t be involved – they should be. But they need to allow the Department’s operational expertise to inform the development of real policy and operational solutions rather the hypothetical and overtly ideological talking points crafted by political campaigns or Twitter.

Empower Communications and Relations – While information is the greatest asset any leader has, possessing it and nurturing it at DHS is essential to success. The Department has made tremendous progress from its early days in building networks and connectivity with its federal, state, local, tribal, university and private sector partners, but it’s not enough. More of those relationships are needed across the Department to better inform its policies, operations and mechanisms. That means not just going out and delivering the same speeches that have been around since Secs. Ridge and Chertoff were in office. It means going out and talking about the threat environment, the risks and consequences, and actively listening to the concerns, challenges and confusion that are out there.

And more than just the Secretary needs to do that. Senior staff (career and political), as well as emerging next generation Department leaders, need to be doing it also. A Secretary who charges people to go out and meet, listen, learn and engage is critical to building the strong, cohesive relationships that will be there for the good days but will be able to endure the bad ones even more. That means scrapping the so-called “Efficiency Initiative” that dramatically reduced the Department’s ability to engage its stakeholders that resided far beyond the red-brick walls of Nebraska Avenue. There’s nothing efficient about any initiative that restricts people from meeting, speaking, and engaging one another and building relationships.

Aggressive Defender of the Department – If you’re a DHS employee, you are a constant target of politicians, an angry and anxious public, the “gotcha” media, and of course, late night comedians. Criticism comes with any job, but the people of DHS take more of a public beating than any of their governmental peers. The annual morale survey of government employees shows the Department ranking somewhere between a North Korean “re-education camp” and behavior monitor of pre-teen girls at a Justin Beiber concert.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I would like to see the Department’s top leader be a far more aggressive defender of its employees than what I’ve seen over the past few years. For example, in 2009, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi accused the Department’s ICE agents of being “un-American” for enforcing the law in capturing and deporting illegal aliens. ICE agents, like their Border Patrol counterparts, have one of the toughest and most dangerous jobs in the Department. The screaming silence of the Department’s leaders to Pelosi’s remarks at that time did nothing to convey to these law enforcement officers that their leadership had their backs.

The point about having “their employees’ backs” was a powerful message that TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger conveyed in his recent remarks at the Wilson Center. It is one that he and his leadership team are taking far more seriously. As a result, they are seeing upticks in employee morale, as well as operating performance, from the agency that is most often maligned for trying to do its job protecting the travelling public. That type of support was also enforced when DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson spent some time wearing the TSA blue shirt and screening passengers at an airport. You can call it a photo op if you want (it was), but a leader that is willing to spend some time in the trenches and is even more willing to aggressively defend its personnel from the cheap shots like Pelosi’s and others will have a workforce that is stronger and performing better.

Rich Cooper blog 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
  • Jerome Hauer

    A simpleton view of the future with nothing new to say. The Dept needs a dramatic overhaul and some divisions need to go back to their home agencies.