Teenagers, known for their immaturity, need stable adult guidance. The Department of Homeland Security is no different.
But like children shuffled among a succession of foster parents, the department, still in its teens, has been hampered by a chronic lack of steady leadership. Currently, numerous top positions — including secretary, deputy secretary and three of four undersecretary slots — have no confirmed appointees.
Vacancies among the political appointees who set policy for the third-largest department is an old and continuing story. What a House hearing revealed is just how damaging the many openings can be for the department’s work and its employees.
Just 47 percent of key department slots are filled with confirmed appointees, according to the Political Appointee Tracker published by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service. Only Interior is worse, at 41 percent, among Cabinet-level agencies.
The Department of Homeland Security started as a jumbled mess when it began operations in 2003, in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It was forged from 22 separate agencies “into a unified, integrated Department,” at least according to its website.
A more realistic view comes from John Roth, the department’s former inspector general. As the 2014-2017 independent watchdog within the agency, Roth had a prime perch to observe the department’s workings and inefficiencies.
“In the best of times, DHS is an unruly and difficult-to-manage organization,” Roth told the House Committee on Homeland Security on Wednesday. “We are not in the best of times. The nature and extent of senior leadership vacancies in the department is cause for concern, as such pervasive vacancies significantly hamper the department’s ability to carry out its all-important mission.”
Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) called the session to examine the question in the hearing’s title: “Trouble at the Top: Are Vacancies at the Department of Homeland Security Undermining the Mission?”
Comments by Roth and others left no doubt that the answer is yes.
After examining the root causes of the department’s “persistent shortfalls,” Roth pointed to poor unity of effort.
“DHS has demonstrated an inability to mesh divergent components, with different histories, cultures, and missions, into a single agency with a unity of effort,” he said. “Too often, the components operated as stand-alone entities or, worse, in competition with each other. Knitting together a unified DHS with all components pulling together to protect our homeland security is a top challenge of the department and requires strong and committed leadership and oversight. This goal is thwarted by the pervasive senior leadership vacancies.”
The shortfalls are widespread, he said, touching “nearly every area of the department,” including:
- Personnel management and morale — Since inception, “DHS has suffered poor employee morale and a dysfunctional work environment.” While morale has improved, the department ranks last among large agencies in employment engagement scores calculated in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report.
- Acquisition management — “Most of DHS major acquisition programs continue to cost more than expected, take longer to deploy than planned, or deliver less capability than promised.”
- Grants management, particularly at the department’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, which “does a fairly poor job of ensuring that the money is not wasted. We believed the cause to be a failure of leadership within and oversight over FEMA, in addition to structural and systemic issues inherent in the program.”
These and other problems are exacerbated by “a lack of personnel within the departmental leadership offices to focus on and address overarching issues,” Roth said.
Despite a bevy of problems, Gene L. Dodaro, who directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as comptroller general of the United States, said DHS “has made important progress in strengthening its management functions.” On April 19, however, he sent DHS a 19-page letter, including an enclosure, “detailing 26 open recommendations that GAO believes warrant the highest priority personal attention from the department and its components.”
But personal attention from whom? The letter was sent to Kevin K. McAleenan, the acting secretary, who is surrounded by other temporary actors.
“Current vacancies in top leadership positions could pose a challenge to addressing high-risk areas and priority recommendations that span DHS’s diverse missions,” Dodaro said, “which include preventing terrorism and enhancing security, managing our borders, administering immigration laws, securing cyberspace, and responding to disasters.”
Despite the claim of “a unified, integrated Department,” Roth said the department’s “vast law enforcement enterprise … does not work together as a unified organization … time and again we saw the law enforcement agencies operating independently without the necessary oversight and no real effort to compel coordination.”
In a well-functioning bureaucracy, officials in the secretary’s office and the deputy secretary’s office would corral problems like these. Unfortunately, Roth said those offices “are simply too thinly staffed to be able to even be aware of, much less effectively manage, the significant and varied issues that face DHS.”
Thompson blamed the White House for the current lack of department leadership, saying President Trump “has decimated the leadership ranks of his own Department of Homeland Security.”
“In recent weeks alone, President Trump has: dismissed Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen; circumvented the law by forcing Acting Deputy Secretary and Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady to resign so he could install Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan as acting secretary; asked Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Administrator David Pekoske to serve as deputy secretary while also running TSA; and pulled the nomination of Ronald Vitiello for Immigration and Customs Enforcement director, prompting his resignation,” Thompson said in his opening statement.
“In addition to the secretary and deputy secretary vacancies, at least 12 other critical positions across the department’s key components and offices are operating without permanent leadership. The president has failed to nominate anyone to fill most of these vacancies, even though many have been held by acting officials for the entirety of the Trump administration. Moreover, there are another 50 senior leadership positions vacant throughout the department, including those tasked with overseeing the daily operations of DHS.
“This chaos appears to be by design,” Thompson added, “orchestrated by a president who wants to be able to remove the department’s leadership on a whim.”
The White House and DHS did not respond to requests for comments. Rep. Mike D. Rogers (Ala.), the committee’s ranking member, and other Republicans on the panel pointed out that the department also had vacancies during the Obama administration. The big difference, of course, is Obama’s Democrats did not run the Senate for most of his administration. Republicans now control the White House and the Senate, which confirms presidential nominees.
“Management vacancies, mismanagement and poor employee morale have plagued the Department of Homeland Security since it was created … ” Rogers said. “Every day, DHS employees do an exceptional job carrying out their critical missions. No one should blame the men and women of DHS for problems Congress has allowed to fester.”
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