Column: Modern practices needed for Homeland Security

Homeland Security consolidates 22 federal agencies into the third-largest cabinet agency. It would have a staff of 169,000 and a budget of $38 billion. This effort should be viewed in the context of seven federal reorganizations in the past six decades. Our current problems are our past solutions. Over time we created the poor connectivity and communications between agencies and functions. The good news: with one clear goal (security), we have a better chance for success. However, we face five major derailment opportunities in setting up this new department.

A number of departments are scared cows, genetically unable to trade away power or line functions (CIA, FBI, the State Department and the Coast Guard). How can homeland security not include the CIA, non-police functions in the FBI and visa processing at the State Department?

Communication incompatibility is a major problem, when the FBI is still unable to use e-mail and is incapable of searching the Internet for two-word combinations like “flight” and “training.” One does not mess with the structure until one has a strategy. We now have a strategy – security through aggressive and pre-emptive actions. Our system must meet private sector standards. The FBI still mails photos of suspected terrorists because they cannot transmit them electronically.

A third derailment opportunity is Deadwood Dump – each agency using the new homeland security department as a means to discard below-average employees. Savvy agency heads do not shed their best employees.

The new department requires employees with more advanced skill sets. It needs staff capable of running an up-to-date integrated information system. The new department needs more translators. Just as we had to invent a new pay scale for technologists, we must pay more to attract the best people. Analysts must write reports that agents can read and act upon. There must be a bias toward action. One does not need eight gatekeepers between the FBI chief and the field offices.

The fifth derailment opportunity is the insular culture of the 19 agencies feeding the new department. Reshuffling the boxes will not make people function differently. The culture of the Ph.D.s at the CIA does not mesh with the police mindset of most of the FBI, and the Ph.D.s at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not mesh with health bureaucrats elsewhere. By shifting the boxes you do not take the bureaucracy out of the bureaucrat. They have survivorship skills and take low-risk approaches. Fighting terrorism requires a higher risk, fast response approach. The recognition structure must positively reward desired new behaviors. Staff must gain a private industry “get it done” mentality.

The American spirit of progress will wither unless we learn how to defeat tightly-knit mafias at home and abroad. Members of Congress and career bureaucrats are natural infighters. Now we must attack these problems with modern management methods. Each bureau must use nonhierarchical teams and collaborative techniques. We need to pay what it takes to attract the best staff and systems that meet private sector standards. Our lives depend on it.

–The writer is a professor in GW’s Department of Health Services Management and Policy.

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