Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Why we can’t clean up the Department of Homeland Security

Posted by David Kassel on June 27, 2007

If we could put a man on the moon, why is it that 38 years later, we can’t create a homeland protection agency that can keep its books straight and its personnel honest?

From the debacle of FEMA’s performance during Hurricane Katrina to the contract cost overruns and delays in the Coast Guard’s “Deepwater” fleet modernization program, it seems DHS hasn’t been able to shake out the bugs since its inception in 2003.  If you read the latest two semi-annual reports by the DHS Inspector General, you might shake your head in wonder at how those problems seem to have cropped up in every area.

In October 2006, the IG detailed cases in which Customs and Boarder Protection officials received bribes for permitting illegal aliens to enter the U.S. and encouraging drug smuggling.  In some cases, CPB officials were working for alien-smuggling organizations and receiving thousands of dollars in payments for every vehicle containing illegal aliens they allowed to enter the U.S. without proper inspection. The 2006 report identified $46 million in questionable contracting costs and cited a lack of proper procurement planning and severe limits to DHS ability to monitor contractor performance and conduct effective contract administration.

The IG’s latest semi-annual report, issued in April, indicates that substantial progress has not been made in DHS’s procurement practices, four years after the agency’s inception. The report notes:

(1) DHS leadership has not firmly established strong centralized acquisition authority in the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer; (2) DHS has not maintained effective internal control over financial reporting, with recurring significant weaknesses reported; (3) DHS Information Systems are not integrated and do not provide helpful reports and analysis; (4) improvements are needed in the description of technical and performance requirements in contracts; and (5) additional staffing is required for program management activities.

The DHS is a mega-agency that combined 22 existing agencies and 170,000 federal employees into a new cabinet-level department.  Looking at FEMA, one of the 22 existing agencies, the IG contends in his latest report:

FEMA has not formed the necessary relationship with stakeholders to analyze agency needs and ensure goods and services are delivered according to the contract terms…Remaining significant issues are insufficient program management and oversight, increasing the risk of waste, fraud, and abuse….

…current financial systems do not have important analytical capabilities and FEMA does not have an information technology strategy for integrating financial and acquisition management data.

A lack of centralized authority, ineffective internal controls, poorly drawn contracts, insufficient oversight, and staffing shortages.  DHS is far from an agency created and operating according to a sense of national purpose, in response to a national emergency.

That putting-a-man-on-the-moon comparison is meant to be a serious one.  The moon landing was a response to a national consensus inspired by John F. Kennedy to put an American on the moon by the end of the 1960s.  After 9/11, you’d think a similar sense of mission would have inspired the creation of the DHS as an agency that would work cohesively to protect us from further terrorist attacks and respond to other disasters, but somehow, it hasn’t happened.

The June 2007 issue of PA Times  discusses the DHS IG’s previous critical report last October, and concludes that ethics training is needed throughout DHS.  Ethics training is fine, but the problems go deeper, or more accurately higher, even than the ethics or integrity of the 170,000 individual employees of the department.

The problem appears to go right to the top–the president–and the people he chose to head the agency and its component divisions.  In an article in the May/June 2007 issue of Public Administration Review , Paul Light singles out FEMA as an example of a DHS division that has suffered from ineffective presidential appointments. In “Recommendations Forestalled or Forgotten,” Light places the blame on the appointments process itself.  Using the 1989 Volcker Commission recommendations  on presidential appointments as a guide, Light maintains that the problem is that the appointments process is “long, cumbersome, insensitive, and embarrassing,” and therefore “may attract people who are motivated more by personal rewards than by the intrinsic value of public service.”  Light adds:

Thus, the first step toward reform may exist in the simple acknowledgement that past failures-such as the sluggish Hurricane Katrina response-were rooted, first and foremost, in the appointments process and the vacancies it so often produces.

Light is on to something, but his emphasis on the problems with the process takes George W. Bush off the hook.  Had Bush actively sought and recruited good candidates, one has to assume he would have found some.  And beyond making bad appointments, Bush has apparently done little to establish appropriate accountability systems at DHS.  In their seminal 1987 article, “Accountability in the Public Sector: Lessons from the Challenger Tragedy,” (May/June 1987 Public Administration Review), Barbara Romzek and Melvin Dubnick theorized that the establishment of inappropriate accountability systems can cause failures in governmental performance, such as the decisions that led to the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Romzek and Dubnick postulated that agency managers and personnel operate under four different types of accountability systems: bureaucratic, legal, political, and professional. Different accountability systems are appropriate for different situations. They noted that a professional accountability system was established in NASA in the 1960s, under which managers deferred to the expertise of the scientists and engineers who had been recruited to the agency. It was the right system at the right time, and under it, NASA became “among the most innovative organizations (public or private) in recent American history.”

But after the successful moon mission, the sense of purpose drifted, NASA’s budget was cut, and a political and bureaucratic accountability system replaced the professional system. The engineers were now routinely overruled by managers who responded to political pressures from Congress and the Reagan White House to launch the shuttle on a routine, commercial basis. The fatal decision to launch of the Challenger in January 1986 was made over the concerns raised by engineers about the functioning of “O-ring” joints in the right solid rocket motor in cold weather.

In the case of the Homeland Security Department, it seems an appropriate set of accountability systems has never been either desired or established.  The Bush administration spent its political capital at DHS fighting for a  “flexible” management system that could operate outside the federal civil service.  The administration primarily wanted to change the ways employees are “paid, promoted, deployed and disciplined.”  It amounted to tinkering with the bureaucratic accountability system.  Hence, the inertia and slow progress on the recommendations that the IG has made.

Bush isn’t completely to blame for DHS.  Many of the problems at DHS may have resulted from institutional pressures outside his control. But a president’s job is both to make good appointments and instill a national sense of purpose. When that doesn’t happen, you tend to end up with agencies with unfixable problems like the HSD.

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