Tom Essig is the owner of TWE LLC and former chief procurement officer of the Department of Homeland Security. (File)
In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security implemented a series of improvements in preparation for the challenges and risks anticipated to occur during the period of transition from the Bush to the Obama Administrations. As stated by then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, “[h]istorically, we know transitions may be periods of increased vulnerability.” The reason for this, as noted by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), is that “[e]vidence suggests that terrorists seek opportunities to take advantage of real or perceived weaknesses in our ability to detect, deter, prevent or respond to attacks and that they view elections and political transitions as periods of increased vulnerability.”
One of the key improvements DHS made was, according to Chertoff, the establishment of succession plans “ensuring that the top leadership in each component includes career executives who will preserve continuity of operations before, during and after the administration transition.” A critical component of this plan was the establishment of a new deputy position within the Office of the Undersecretary for Management, to be staffed by a career executive. This new deputy USM position would ensure continuity in the management and oversight of the department’s major acquisition programs during times when most, if not all, positions occupied by political appointees would be vacant.
A balance between career and non-career (political) leadership positions at DHS has been recommended by a number of independent reviews, including the NAPA transition review and a January 2008 report from the DHS Homeland Security Advisory Council Administration Transition Task Force. In fact, the new Deputy USM position was highlighted in the latter report, which both commended DHS for quickly appointing a senior career individual to the position and recommended that it “[e]nsure the current career deputy under secretary for management remains in this position during the next administration. Not long after completion of the transition period, however, DHS converted to the deputy USM to a non-career position.
In my view, that change creates an organizational weakness that had been eliminated when the deputy USM position was created. As political positions, both the USM and deputy USM positions will see changes in personnel during every transition period, creating regular, predictable periods where both positions will be vacant. Of course, DHS could assign people to those positions in an “acting” capacity. But as anyone who has worked in (or for someone in) that capacity knows, people who are “acting”, are never truly or completely in charge.
According to the DHS website, “[t]he Management Directorate is responsible for department-wide management, standard setting, and operations – with a focus on integrating and unifying the third largest department in the Federal government….”
While I don’t believe that every leadership organization within DHS needs to have both a career and non-career employee, the Management Directorate seems to be an area where that arrangement is essential. And unlike the Department of Defense (DoD), DHS does not have a cadre of senior military personnel at the department level to provide stability during transition periods. At DoD, a significant number of departmental leadership positions are reserved for military personnel and more reserved for career civilians. Together, they provide management stability during transition periods. At DHS, however, it’s necessary to provide that stability with career civilians.
Of course, it’s not only during presidential transition periods where we’re likely to see significant leadership vacancies at DHS. There will continue to be vacancies in both career and non-career positions, but that does not eliminate the need to ensure that the organizational structures and processes are in place, and remain in place, to minimize risk areas where possible. In 2008, DHS identified the lack of a career civilian leadership position within the Management Directorate as a weakness and took quick action to eliminate that weakness. Today, DHS has a new secretary and deputy secretary and the deputy USM has been assigned as acting USM. Perhaps it’s also time to take another look at the deputy USM position to determine whether or not the career/non-career balance should be restored.