Jeh Johnson, new head of US Homeland Security, said he wants to forge a better relationship with the private sector in order to take advantage of innovation. (Getty Images)
There’s a new team sitting atop one of the United States’ largest and perhaps least understood bureaucracies, and it has recently taken to the stump to convince lawmakers and the public that big changes are coming.
For much of 2013, the Department of Homeland Security was forced to run operations despite having 48 vacant top management positions atop the 22-agency, 240,000-person organization. But since December, Congress and DHS have managed to fill 18 of those jobs, most critically signing off on former Defense Department top lawyer Jeh Johnson as head of the department, along with new Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Gil Kerlikowske.
Other big names moving to DHS include former Air Force officer and US counterterrorism coordinator Francis X. Taylor, taking over as undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, and Phyllis Schneck, the new deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity who was formerly the chief technology officer of the security software company McAfee.
Schneck and Johnson have already hit the road in order to find some fresh cyber talent to bring to DHS, and over the past several months they have visited some of the nation’s leading tech campuses to recruit at a time when cybersecurity funding for the department has increased from $700 million in 2014 to $1.2 billion in the 2015 budget request.
And according to some insiders, there have already been some changes in the culture at DHS HQ.
“Meetings at DHS are already starting about two hours earlier, like they did at DoD” said one person with multiple contacts at the department. The source added that Johnson’s time as the Pentagon’s top lawyer is informing how he runs the show at DHS, bringing a more orderly process to the agency’s operations.
After years in which the agency has been plagued with low morale and the inability or unwillingness of the 22 previously independent agencies to all row in the same direction under a single leadership team, Johnson and his top staff are working to change that and quickly. He remarked this year that one of his main short-term goals is to “inject a new energy” into DHS by partnering with industry and the private sector and through streamlining some of the lumbering agency’s operations.
“He’s working very hard to realign some of the internal management structures inside the department to allow it to be more effective when it comes to acquisition and research and development,” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a non-resident senior associate for the Homeland Security and counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It took the Defense Department almost 40 years before it reached the point where it created something like the Goldwater-Nichols Act — which streamlined the Pentagon’s command structure and began to force a level of jointness across the different services — so it’s not expected that Johnson can simply bring in a new team and reconstitute the decade-old department right away.
“It’s going to take them a lot of time to break down those barriers, and that’s OK as long as it’s done in a responsible way,” Nelson said.
One way they are doing that, Johnson and his deputies claim, is by prioritizing the forging of a better relationship with the private sector in order to take advantage of innovation.
In a Feb. 6 speech in Washington, Johnson stressed that “the key to the government’s efforts is to build trust with the private sector and attract the best and the brightest from the private sector to come work for us.”
Johnson’s new deputy, Mayorkas, underscored that point at a Border Security conference in Arizona on March 18 when he told the assembled industry and law enforcement partners that “we in the government do not have a monopoly on the best ideas,” and that “engagement [with the private sector] will yield a stronger, a more responsive and a more resilient Department of Homeland Security.”
In his previous role as the director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Mayorkas said he became a fan of making use of multiple short-term technology contracts that allowed his agency to pivot as technologies developed or the needs of his staff changed.
“That is the direction that we need to go” across the DHS, he insisted.
Longtime DHS watcher Nelson said the department’s new leadership team needs to prioritize “better aligning how the department develops its capability requirements and how it conducts research and development to meet those requirements at a strategic level.”
One issue where that is particularly important concerns weapons of mass destruction (WMD), where responsibilities for defense against biological, chemical and nuclear threats “are spread against multiple different entities at the DHS level. How do you better align those functions so you have a more comprehensive, streamlined and effective approach to issues of WMD proliferation?”
A bright spot for the department came Feb. 27, when the CBP awarded a long-awaited $145 million contract for its controversial Arizona border security project known as the Integrated Fixed Tower (IFT) program to Israeli-owned Elbit Systems of America. The program is designed to “detect, track, identify and classify items of interest across the southwest border through a series of fixed sensor towers and command and control center equipment that displays information on a common operating picture,” according to a government website.
Elbit, which offered a version of a system being used on Israel’s borders, beat bidders Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Telephonics and Boeing.
The contract comes eight years after the CBP launched the ill-fated Secure Border Initiative technology program to network the southern border with high-tech radar and surveillance cameras, a program canceled in 2011 after spending $1 billion to surveil only about 53 miles of Arizona’s border.
The award of the IFT contract, delayed several times as the department worked to get its acquisition priorities aligned, is only a small step in a larger effort to achieve some measure of “operational control” over the southwest border.
But it does look like a much-needed success that the department can point to in an area where it has long taken criticism from Capitol Hill, governors of border states and industry partners who struggled to understand what DHS was looking for. ■