Government Executive

Department of Homeland Security: A Hollow Tribute

The Department of Homeland Security is not just the largest government reorganization since 1947, when Congress approved Harry Truman's Defense Department. It also is likely to be the most difficult to manage.

The numbers tell the story. The department would eventually include at least 200,000 employees, including 30,000 baggage screeners not counted in the president's initial proposal, 22 separate agencies, dozens of largely incompatible financial management systems, and 100 or so personnel systems. Managers at the department would have to negotiate contracts with at least 18 labor unions, including 33,000 members of the American Federation of Government Employees, 12,000 members of the National Treasury Employees Union, and exactly eight members of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

Luckily, the department would be built around some of the best-performing organizations in government. One of them, the Coast Guard, won an A for its overall management in Government Executive's 2000 Federal Performance Report, placing it near the very top of the two dozen agencies graded over the past three years. Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency scored lower with a B, it has made dramatic gains since the early 1990s when one senator characterized FEMA as "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known."

Unfortunately, the department will also contain some of the worst-running agencies in government. The Customs Service received a C in Government Executive's 1999 ratings, while the Immigration and Naturalization Service also earned a C. Neither agency has improved much since. In the 2002 report, for example, the INS fell to a D. Its Border Patrol agents are quitting faster than they can be replaced, its immigration investigators are undertrained, overworked and overstressed, and its information management is abysmal. Consider how Government Executive described the agency in its 2002 report card: "Mediocre to poor performance in every management area persists except on services side, where fees support improvements."

A new department does not have to run perfectly on its first day, however. Congress often goes back into reorganizations to fine-tune, reconsider and rearrange its work long after passage.

Congress and the president almost certainly will begin thinking about how to reorganize the new Department of Homeland Security the day Congress approves it. Indeed, the president's proposal provides him with extraordinary authority to manage the reorganization. But if the secretary of Homeland Security cannot succeed without special authority and waivers, can the secretary succeed at all?

The most controversial of these waivers would give the secretary the authority to create a personnel system that is "flexible and contemporary." Although the two words are never defined, the implication is obvious: the new department would be free to design a new system from scratch.

It is hard to blame the president for proposing this waiver. The current personnel system is beyond comprehension. It is slow in its hiring, interminable at firing, permissive at promoting, useless at disciplining, and penurious when it comes to rewarding a job well done. The vast majority of federal employees surveyed by the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service in 2001 described the hiring process as slow and confusing, a quarter called it unfair, and less than a third said the federal government does a good job at disciplining poor performers.

Lawmakers should make sure the secretary can move quickly to create a unified personnel system for the department. Congress could start by taking action on the Federal Workforce Management Improvement Act, introduced in June by Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. The bill would give the federal government desperately needed and clearly specified authority to accelerate the hiring process, paving the way for the large-scale reforms expected in the fall from the National Commission on the Public Service, chaired by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker.

Congress could cherry-pick from past statutes. In 1998, for example, lawmakers gave the Internal Revenue Service authority to approve larger cash performance awards, pay top employees higher salaries and offer bigger recruitment and retention payments.

But no personnel system will help the new department succeed unless employees get the resources they need. Congress must be prepared to spend more than the norm on training, technology and pay, and be ready to hire additional employees, if that is what it takes. The department can hardly be a tribute to the victims of Sept. 11—as House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri says it should be—if Congress and the president pretend that homeland security can be bought on the cheap. An undertrained, understaffed Department of Homeland Security would be a hollow monument, indeed.