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WaPo examines the impact of DHS employee turnover

The Washington Post has published a long story tonight (presumably on the front page tomorrow) looking at the impacts of DHS employee turnover at various levels within the Department, and focusing primarily on two relatively small but important parts of DHS: the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) and the cybersecurity offices within the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD). The link to the full story is here, and it is definitely worth reading closely.

Some initial reactions to the piece:

1. The piece accurately highlights several of the general factors that contribute to the problems of low morale and high turnover, including what is described as a “stifling” bureaucracy and the burdens of excessive congressional oversight. I’d add one more general factor that I believe contributes to this: the lack of a clear career pathway for mid-to-senior level professionals within the Department. Too many people, especially at headquarters, are hired for a specific billet on the General Schedule and then have nowhere to go once their experience and capabilities have outgrown the responsibilities of their position. Some recent efforts have been made at the Department to address this (e.g. the Leadership Development initiative led by Admiral John Acton), but much more needs to be done.

2. Another important general factor that I believe contributes to the “stifling bureaucracy” is the diffusion (or in some respects, opacity) of decision-making authority within the Department. This is due to a number of factors, including (a) excessive political appointees in some offices at various points in time in the Department’s history, (b) frequently shifting relationships between HQ and the major operational components, (c) excessive micromanagement of the DHS budget by OMB and by Congress, and (d) the impact of oversight-related offices at HQ who sometimes act as a excessive curb on proactive efforts by the operational entities of the Department.

On that last point, given the Department’s mission, the culture needs to shift to encourage initiative and risk-taking, and hold people accountable not only for failed actions but also for decisions to block or stall the initiative of others; unfortunately, in many parts of DHS it is a lot easier to say “no” to someone else’s good idea than it is to drive change on a given issue.

3. It is notable – and also frustrating – that many of the issues raised in this piece are not new. The Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Culture Task Force report, released in early 2007 is still very relevant in its assessment of DHS, even though the Department is now three times as old as it was when the report was released. And in 2006, I blogged about a USA Today piece that addresses a strikingly similar set of issues.

4. It is critical that the Department take aggressive steps to address these issues, including potentially seeking legislation from Congress where certain existing authorities may serve as an impediment to change. Too much is at stake to continue to let them fester, especially given the current level of terrorist threats to the homeland and cyber threats to our national and economic security.

We’ll likely have more thoughts on this in the coming days. Thoughtful comments are encouraged.