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Homeland Insecurity

July 16, 2007

178214274_cb91b25214 An interesting trend has begun popping up in the blogs lately regarding staffing in public health preparedness especially, but also in other seemingly “mission critical” fields in government.  This trend is toward understaffing and the resulting increase in the use of consultants to fill those roles.  I think this is a dangerous development, but I’m at a loss for how to stanch what I consider to be a raw deal.

Our current administration is peopled by folks who cut their teeth in President Nixon’s administration then moved into President Reagan’s administration, which is where they perfected much of the traditional conservative governing style.  Emphasis on reducing the size of government, when coupled with the preference towards privatization naturally lead to the exponential growth of the consultant class.

This topic was recently covered by the national press with regards to the current war effort in Iraq.  There are now more contractors in Iraq than there are troops.  On one level it makes sense that there are more support personnel than troops, but don’t the Armed Forces have these folks already on the payroll?  Noah Shachtman of the blog Danger Room, presented some information about the Defense Department’s Joint IED Defeat Organization being staffed with more contractors than federal employees.  In this case, one can easily see the problem with depending so heavily on contractors – if you look at the staffing breakdown for the JIEDDO, you’ll see that only one contractor out of 266 is currently stationed anywhere near an IED.  Being consultants, they can do that – DoD employees and members of the Armed Forces wouldn’t be given the opportunity to say they’d rather not.  So, our IED Defeat Org could be hamstrung by distance from the battlefield.

Now, it is indeed possible to make the case that in traditional Armed Forces groups such as JIEDDO, it might be hard to find career employees due to the fact that we’ve got two wars going on, so maybe I’m being picky, right?  The problem, though is actually worse in Executive Branch departments and agencies, though.  The same problem of understaffing exists, yet the solution is to do nothing about it.

The extremely valuable Homeland Security Digital Library, out of the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, alerts us to a report recently published by the majority staff of the House Committee on Homeland Security detailing the senior level vacancies at DHS.  They’ve concluded that between the various agencies and offices nearly one in four positions sits unfilled.  According the report, there were 138 top level positions out of 575 waiting to be filled.  This is nearly four years after DHS was welded together.

It is, of course, worse in some agencies than others.  The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy has a shocking vacancy rate of 48% (11/23); the Office of the General Counsel has a vacancy rate of 47% (9/19); the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Intelligence has a vacancy rate of 36% (8/22); Citizenship and Immigration Services 34% (16/48); FEMA 31% (24/77); the Office of the Inspector General 31% (4/13); US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement 31% (19/62); and the US Coast Guard 29% (4/14).  I think that we can all agree that some of the agencies and offices are pretty important to protecting the “homeland,” so one has to wonder why fulfilling these positions that are so crucial to our safety and security that they can continue to sit empty?

Well, it could be that they are recruiting these positions, and just haven’t found the right guy or gal.  In 44% of the cases, you’d be correct.  Those positions are being actively recruited (again, as of May 2007).  Another 5% are pending appointment, so will or should be filled shortly.  The other 51% (70 positions) are empty with no explanation given to the House Committee staff.  They’re just empty – no plans to hire for them has been given, to reason why they’ve remained open for so long.

Here in Philadelphia, steps have only recently begun to be taken to address a similar critically understaffed situation.  The June 2006 Emergency Preparedness Review Committee Report (pdf) lists as the first item to be addressed building up emergency management capacity, noting that:

[t]he size and scope of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is severely limited given the City’s profile in terms of population, economic and historic importance, and the natural and potential terrorist threats it faces.

Goal #2 in Item 1.1 is to:

Increase staff in the OEM.

Notice that it needed to be spelled out in blatant terms.  Reading it as I did, that sentence sounds sharpened to the point of disgust.

To have these shortcomings in this post-9/11 world, and with all of this money flying around is inexcusable.  It exposes us as either amazingly short-sighted, or criminally negligent.  Again, I have no solutions.  None except that we need better leaders.  Leaders who recognize that the essence of a prepared nation (and city) begins with having people work towards a higher level of preparedness.

Photo credit: shinnygogo

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