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DHS: We’re Getting There

September 13, 2007

119536258_e697e01a81 Last week David Walker, Comptroller General, submitted a report (pdf) to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs regarding the status of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Mr. Walker works for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and is tasked with auditing and evaluating government programs and spending.  It’s now been four and one-half years since DHS was stitched together in one of the largest government reorganizations in US history, and the GAO has assessed how they’re doing in 14 mission and management areas.

The long and short of it?  They’ve still got some work to do – well, okay, they’ve got lots and lots of work to do.  GAO reported that DHS has made “substantial” progress in only one of the 14 areas (substantial means that a good amount of progress has been made on 75% or more of the identified expectations).  The really scary part?  “Limited” progress in four areas (yes, that’s nearly 30%).  “Limited” means that a good amount of progress has been made on 25% or less of the expectations – essentially, nothing has been done.  A critical reader would now be asking, “What’s a ‘good amount of progress’?”  A good amount of progress, according to GAO is where:

…DHS has taken actions to satisfy most elements of the expectation…

Pretty loosey-goosey if you ask me, but I think appropriate given the difficulty of this exercise.  Look at the implications of this definition, though.  High-scoring areas show that for the most part, everything’s getting done.  Low-scoring areas, though, show that, in general, even less than you realize has been done.  Take, for example, the Emergency Preparedness and Response area – which was rated as having “limited” progress.  GAO said that five of 24 expectations were generally achieved.  Read that again, but now substitute in the above definition.  In five out of 24 expectations in Emergency Preparedness and Response, DHS has achieved -most- elements of the expectation.  In their key, most important, reason for existing area, they’ve accomplished just over half of 20% of their expectations.  That’s it.

This, of course, is the most egregious, but still no more amazing than the other three areas that were rated “limited.”  In Science and Technology, 1 of 6 expectations has been generally achieved.  In Human Capital Management, 2 of 8 expectations have been generally achieved.  In Information Technology Management, 2 of 13 expectations have been generally achieved.

Now, if you remember my last post on the NBIS, some of these problems are not new to you.  NBIS was housed in the Directorate of Science and Technology and there are continuing problems with maintaining proper staffing levels on the program.  What I’m getting at is that those problems identified by the GAO as problems are not programmatic – they are endemic.  The structure of DHS is the problem.  To wit:

Overall, DHS has made more progress in its mission areas than in its management areas, reflecting an understandable focus on implementing efforts to secure the homeland.

I agree with Mr. Walker that focusing on the mission at hand is important.  The problem with doing that, though, is that it ignores your long term goals.  No planning gets done.  Forward thinking programs like NBIS fall by the wayside because no one can devote the time to nurturing a program waiting for it to pay dividends.

DHS has before been accused of being an org chart reshuffling, and little else.  This report lends credence to that theory.  The parts of DHS that can function by themselves (such as the Coast Guard, the old INS, and TSA), continue to work well.  In fact, Maritime Security was the lone “substantial” rank awarded.  For USCG, getting pulled into DHS was little more than a change in who they reported to.  For areas where significant leadership, communication, coordination and planning were called for – where the meat of a DHS reorganization really should be – that’s where they’re failing.

This report lets us know that there is a failure of leadership at DHS, and it’s making us less safe.  Whether they can fix these problems and become a functioning department remains to be seen, but given their history, well, I’m skeptical.

Photo credit: Wolinetz

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