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A Decade Later

September 2011
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine
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The federal organization at the heart of domestic security matures and sharpens its focus.

The worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor changed everything. Nowhere is that more true than at the federal agency that was stood up almost two years after 9/11 to make sure that such an attack never happens again—the Department of Homeland Security.

The terrorist attacks on New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania served as an impetus both in the executive and legislative branches to unify the nation’s domestic security apparatus under one umbrella organization. Whether keeping air travelers secure, protecting the U.S. president, patrolling the nation’s shoreline or coordinating disaster response, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) itself represented a seismic shift in how the government coordinates the myriad facets of domestic security.

The DHS was formed in 2003 from 22 different agencies, most of which had been the responsibility of as many as nine different cabinet-level departments (see box, page 64). Others had been independent, stand-alone government offices with their own missions and were created to deal with very specific security-related tasks.

As noted at the time by both the White House and Capitol Hill, bringing together that many organizations and cultures would be a daunting task. But eight years later, the DHS has made great strides in implementing needed changes.

The nexus for many of those changes is the Office of the DHS’ Undersecretary for Management, which, since the agency was stood up, encompasses such activities as human resource management, information technology and acquisition. Elaine Duke was undersecretary for management for two years and served in a number of positions within the DHS Management Directorate prior to that time. She joined the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)—an agency that had been part of the Transportation Department—in August 2002 as deputy assistant administrator for acquisition. She did so after more than 20 years as a career civilian official with the Navy and Air Force. She originally had been recruited to join the Transportation Department’s “Border and Transportation Security” directorate, which had been one of the first efforts to close the gaps in domestic security post-9/11.

In recalling the early days of helping to stand up the DHS, Duke says that, “One of the big challenges is, how do you balance mission and good business? How do you build a culture in TSA and DHS that is responsive, that is nimble and quick, so that it’s always adapting to the changing threat of terrorism, but still has the right business processes at the optimum level?”

For example, Duke notes, there are definite downsides to the agency in doing either too much or too little standardization of policies and procedures when it comes to acquisition. This is something she learned as the TSA tried to meet one of the early post-9/11 mandates to federalize airport security screening.

 
 
 
“If you maximize it,” she explains, referring to too much standardization, “you lose your flexibility. If you minimize it, you risk becoming less efficient and don’t meet your fiscal or fiduciary responsibility.” Duke adds that a related challenge is determining where decisions should take place in an agency as large as the DHS. “Should it be in the components versus headquarters? Do you want to go joint, versus everybody doing their individual things?” she asks.

Duke says that contrary to popular belief, the DHS was not started from, as she puts it, “a blank sheet of paper. If it had been, it might have been easier.” Rather, she says, another big challenge for the department was the job of harmonizing the component agencies, each of which had business policies, practices and procedures that were a core part of the parent departments of which they had been a part.

In the case of the U.S. Coast Guard, this quasi-military service had spent much of its nearly 200-year history as part of the Department of Commerce; in peacetime, the commandant of the Coast Guard reports to the secretary of Homeland Security, but in times of war or at the direction of the president, it serves under the Navy Department.

“If none of them had had their own systems, then everyone could have come together, put their requirements on the table and built one. But, when everyone has their own system of people, processes and IT [information technology], someone has to give up to optimize, and that’s hard,” she emphasizes.

Duke also reflects candidly that many of the component agencies that became part of the DHS also historically had been undercapitalized by their former parent agencies. She says the Coast Guard, for example, had both its aircraft and ship fleets undercapitalized for years. That in turn may have led to a rushed and ultimately flawed program called Deepwater that was supposed to modernize the Coast Guard fleet. That program instead revealed that the Coast Guard ultimately was ill-equipped to manage a massive $24 billion modernization project. It drew congressional criticism and a Justice Department investigation.

Duke says that the undercapitalization of the component agencies compounded the fact that in some cases, they also were saddled with additional missions upon coming under the DHS umbrella. And with the benefit of that hindsight, Duke emphasizes that had she been in a position to make a meaningful recommendation in this regard to Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security, she would have recommended the creation of a unified, agencywide national operations center for the DHS much earlier in its history.

She explains that along with the normal day-to-day responsibilities of its component agencies, the DHS also has specialized responsibilities under executive branch mandates such as Homeland Security Presidential Directive Number 5 (HSPD-5). “That gives the secretary of Homeland Security coordination responsibility over an event,” Duke reiterates, such as the Super Bowl, a papal visit, a presidential inauguration, a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina or an attempted act of terrorism.

In fact, the DHS established a national operations center under the aegis of its Operations Directorate during an agencywide reorganization in 2005. The center serves as a full-time operations hub for the DHS, and along with internal coordination, also serves as a fusion center for more than 35 federal, state, territorial, tribal, local and private-sector agencies.

Duke retired from federal service in 2010, and she has opened a consulting firm that assists companies in doing business with the government. Last year, Rafael Borras succeeded Duke as the DHS undersecretary of management, following stints in the private sector, as well as at the General Services Administration and the Commerce Department.

With the benefit of a little more than a year under his belt, Borras views the DHS as an agency that is “maturing.” He contends that the most beneficial tool the DHS needed for it to properly mature has been the passage of time. “Along with time,” he explains, “you need to be able to manage expectations. None of this was intended to take place overnight.”

While acknowledging that the constituent agencies of the DHS might have had cultural differences to overcome, he says that they all still operated under the same purchasing, personnel and financial responsibility rules under which most government agencies operate.

Borras believes that the “experiment,” as he calls it, of knitting together the DHS from its constituent agencies is over, and now, the challenge is in dealing with new challenges as they present themselves. While its public focus over the last eight years has been in domestic security, the scope of the DHS recently has turned international.

Earlier this year, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano conducted her first discussions in New Delhi with her counterparts in India. In July, DHS Undersecretary Jane Lute signed a nonbinding memorandum of understanding with Indian officials agreeing to collaborate on cybersecurity matters.

Napolitano’s schedule in the past year has included numerous overseas trips designed to help the department deal with the increasingly international nature of its mission. Topics have included the implications of the borderless nature of cybersecurity; transnational terrorism and crime; and aspects of an evolving, ever-changing mission for the DHS that had been unimagined when the first congressional hearings were convened to authorize the department’s creation.

“We have to address these problems with our global partners,” Borras says, and he suggests that those who helped put together the department created a flexible framework that helps today’s DHS with those international challenges. That framework, he adds, has given the agency the tools it needs to deal not only with internal and border security issues, as well as international challenges.

Prior to joining the DHS, Borras spent nearly a decade in the private sector as an executive with URS, a global engineering research firm. He says that during his tenure with the company, URS grew primarily through mergers and acquisitions with other firms. He believes that the keys to making such combinations work include putting the newly acquired entities on the same communication system; placing the companies on the same financial management platform; and harmonizing a variety of human resource and benefit packages.

After more than a year on the job at the DHS, Borras believes his new organization is still in the process of bringing the constituent agencies under necessary common resources.

One of the most long-sought-after goals for the agency is to complete work on an agencywide financial management system. Several years ago, that would have meant an expensive, monolithic server-based solution that would have taken years to develop and implement. In recent years, however, the White House has frowned on such large financial management solutions as being unworkable and too expensive, and recently has been shutting down unsuccessful development programs.

Perhaps taking a cue from recent Office of Management and Budget decisions on other agencies’ financial management systems, the DHS now is focused on a more nimble approach to financial management information technology, Borras says. “It doesn’t mean a single financial management platform. We’re well beyond that with today’s technology. You can have systems that talk to each other,” and, he notes, do a better job of exchanging the most important interagency financial information in a timely and complete manner. “We’re working very hard,” he explains, “to lay the groundwork in the not too distant future to make that happen.”

In the realm of how the DHS recruits and retains staff, Borras describes an initiative within the agency’s management directorate to harmonize what he calls “HRIT,” or human resources information technology.

“We did an inventory of how many personnel systems we have in the department. It was a big task, with all the major and minor HR systems that we had to manage personnel, to manage benefits.”

Borras explains that the DHS is developing an action plan to determine, for example, how many “learning management systems” will be used in the department for everything from new employee initiation, to advanced continuing education for long-time experts. Eventually, he sees the possibility of whittling down the number of those systems across the DHS to just two, to provide some consistency and efficiency to agency training.

In an effort to remedy the shortcomings that ultimately proved to be the undoing of the Coast Guard’s Deepwater program, Borras’ office is continuing an begun by his predecessor to institute a more systematic acquisition management framework across the DHS. While it is still under development, Borras explains, “We have a system in place that provides governance for our major and minor acquisition programs.”

The system, he says, includes a more rigorous internal review and approval process anytime an agency wants to initiate a new acquisition. Borras suggests that key to the process is a mission needs statement and an operational requirements document, along with rigorous cost estimates.

Finally, Borras contends that the new framework will institutionalize the role of the DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate in helping to evaluate and recommend cutting-edge technologies that will help to fulfill the missions of its constituent agencies. And it also will implement acquisition review boards that he says will “hold people accountable” for the success or failure of acquisition programs.

WEB RESOURCES
Federal agencies integrated into the DHS in 2002: www.dhs.gov/xabout/history/editorial_0133.shtm
State Department/U.S. Consulate Cybersecurity Agreement: http://chennai.usconsulate.gov/prind110719.html