As America approaches the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) veterans and homeland security practitioners are reassessing the Department’s performance and the direction the Department must take to continuously improve its operations and to anticipate and effectively address the security and operational resilience challenges before the nation. Illustrative of these efforts are the Heritage Foundation’s August 2011 reports: “Homeland Security 4.0” and “A Counterterrorism Strategy for the Next Wave.”

It is worthy to note that just as people are the foundation of and empower a democracy, and infrastructure is the foundation of and empowers a modern nation, organizational culture is the foundation of workforce behavior and an organization’s performance. In the case of DHS, two cultures (one mission focused and one organizationally focused) remain operative. To no small degree, these near mutually exclusive and competing cultures are responsible for the historic and continuing “challenges” facing DHS that are spotlighted in the Heritage Foundation reports and those from similar organizations.

In my experience, mission-focused homeland security culture was created in operational visions articulated in 2002 by Governor Tom Ridge, then the Homeland Security Advisor to the President and Mr. Frank Cilluffo, the Director of the President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council (PHSAC). Governor Ridge understood clearly the distortions inherent in the view from inside the Washington Beltway. He further recognized that Washington would never know or understand in real-time the conditions and homeland security needs of those who live and work in America’s hometowns. Accordingly, and throughout his Federal public service, Ridge repeatedly articulated a maxim that forced his organization’s focus beyond the Beltway: “When America’s hometowns are secure, the homeland will be secure.”

Complementing Governor Ridge’s vision and maxim was Mr. Cilluffo’s own vision and goal. Recognizing that homeland security required a focus that transcended conventional applications of security, Mr. Cilluffo charged the PHSAC members and staff to apply their experience and expertise to understanding current conditions, anticipating a spectrum of future homeland requirements and presenting recommendations to continuously build and sustain what he described as, “A safer, stronger, and better America.”

Despite the many unprecedented tactical challenges associated with the 9/11 attacks, and later, the turmoil inherent in the creation of DHS, the leadership focus and resulting homeland security culture remained steady, community and capability focused and nationally comprehensive and unifying.

Fast-forward to February 2005 and the first change in DHS leadership and the DHS Second Stage Review (2SR). During 2SR, the culture driven by Secretary Ridge’s maxim and Mr. Cilluffo’s vision were supplanted by a radically different focus, goal and resulting culture. Under external pressures for organizational development, 2SR increasingly focused on the creation of what was termed a “World Class Organization.” While the HSAC provided recommendations for addressing the growing culture issue in its June 2007 Culture Task Force Report, for whatever reason, the imperative to square the Department’s original mission-focused culture with the 2SR’s organizationally-focused culture never happened.

The challenges before the nation compel DHS unity of culture and purpose. Accordingly, DHS should act quickly to re-establish a culture that thwarts organizational satisfaction with the status quo and encourages the continuous questioning of DHS policies, programs and resulting operations. In other words, DHS must instill a culture that empowers continuous innovation throughout the spectrum of its operations.

To those ends, the Secretary can and should:

  • Empower advisory committee independence. Integrate the “organizationally independent” wording in the HSAC’s Charter into all DHS and Presidential Advisory Committee charters the Department operates and/or supports. This will provide committee members freedom from influence by those who appointed them, allow them autonomy from DHS policy and program inertia, and help override long-standing DHS organizational resistance to change.
  • Trust the voice of the American people. Implement the American Resilience Assessment (ARA) recommended in the HSAC’s June 2011 Community Resilience Task Force Report. Compile “ground truth” based requirements to inform investment in the operational resilience of the nation’s infrastructure and communities they serve.
  • Create a DHS Innovation Center. Recognizing the power of human thought and innovation and conscious of the fact that the first personal computer was created in a garage, the Center’s culture will focus on empowering continuous improvement in homeland security policies, programs and operations.
    • The Center would publicly encourage, receive, formally acknowledge, track and ensure timely headquarters and component review of recommendations submitted to it.
    • To ensure effective oversight of taxpayer resources, DHS would report to Congress on at least a quarterly basis the recommendations submitted to the Center and the actions taken on them.

The ability to continuously innovate and adapt is fundamental to achieving and sustaining resilient infrastructures, communities and a resilient nation. Ironically, the ability to accomplish those frequently articulated homeland security objectives has and continues to be obstructed fundamentally by an organizational culture DHS continues to inflict on itself. To correct this situation, and consistent with the government’s constitutional responsibilities to “provide for the common defense” and enable “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” DHS is required to actively listen to, learn from and empower those it is solemnly sworn to serve. Only by so doing will DHS’s organizationally focused culture be contained and unifying homeland security policies and programs be created to secure America’s hometowns, and in-turn, build and sustain a “safer, stronger and better America.”

Jeff Gaynor blogs on critical infrastructure and national resilience. Read More