Editor's Note: This article was originally published on Oct. 17, 2014.

Four months after being confirmed and sworn in as the secretary of homeland security, Jeh Johnson issued a memo to his top leaders in the department that launched his "Unity of Effort" initiative. The April 22 memo, titled "Strengthening Departmental Unity of Effort," outlines his goal of maturing the young department to be "greater than the the sum of its parts" and instructs DHS leaders to take specific steps to improve planning, programming, budgeting and execution across the department. Johnson discussed the initiative in a speech last month at a symposium hosted by the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council. Following are edited excerpts.


Cybersecurity is one of my major priorities in office. We do a pretty good job of interfacing with the private sector. But the private sector, from the most sophisticated cybersecurity expert in the financial industry to the less sophisticated smaller businesses, values information sharing with the government so that we can share with them what we see as the broader cybersecurity threat.

When there is an attack, the individual target of an attack always appreciates the broader picture that they may be able to get from the government. They appreciate us sharing best practices. And we do a pretty good job of that. I've been impressed with how our cybersecurity operators and our ops center share information very, very effectively, very efficiently with the private sector. They know these people on a first name basis, the cybersecurity experts at the large companies out there.

But there is legislation pending in Congress right now, which I think would really help our mission. On a bipartisan basis, a number of people in Congress have developed on both the House and Senate side, cybersecurity legislation to codify my departments' authorities to secure in the dot.gov world, that codify our ability to receive information and the private sector's ability to share information with us to help secure the dot.com world and a host of other things, enhancing our cyber talent authorities to hire good cybersecurity talent.

We are recapitalizing the Coast Guard. We're filling the vacancies that existed in the department when I came into office. We had no secretary, no deputy secretary and a number of other presidential appointments were vacant. Since I came into office, including myself, the Senate has confirmed nine presidential appointees. There are four more now awaiting confirmation. Once they're confirmed, and I hope they will be confirmed before the Senate leaves town today or in the lame duck session. Once they're confirmed, we will be done. We will have filled all the vacancies. That is a good news story.

Unity of Effort

We have embarked upon a Unity of Effort initiative within the Department of Homeland Security. Now what do I mean by that? We have 22 components and many of those components simply function with department headquarters through the stovepipes. Give me a budget submission or an acquisition submission or request through the stovepipe of your department directly to headquarters.

We've embarked upon a unity of effort initiative that promotes greater coordination among departments, greater centralized decision-making at headquarters, a more strategic approach to our budget building process, a more strategic departmentwide approach to our acquisition strategy. It is clearly a balance. Within the Department of Homeland Security, there are components that long predated the Department of Homeland Security. And so what we are not asking components to do is to all act and behave together. They are distinct cultures. The United States Coast Guard has a culture very distinct from the United States Secret Service, from FEMA, from our immigration components. But what we are asking and expecting our component leadership to do is participate with us in a more strategic approach to promote greater efficiency in how we operate, how we conduct ourselves, particularly in our budget process and in our acquisitions.

And so through a single leadership body at the departmentwide level, we're bringing this about. More strategic decision-making driven by our strategic priorities to remove redundancy. And so this is a process that earlier on in the annual cycle of budget making requires a cross-component view, a cross-component assessment of what our needs are as a department. This will, I believe, help to enhance efficiencies, save taxpayer dollars, and it is particularly important to do in this environment of fiscal constraint.

I hope that what we are able to achieve while I am secretary will have a long lasting impact in this regard. In general, the thought I'd like to leave you with before I take questions is that Homeland Security is a balance. It is a balance between pure security on the one hand and preserving our values and our liberties as Americans. I like to tell audiences that I can build you a perfectly safe house, risk-free from any intrusion. But it will be a prison. I can build you a perfectly safe, risk-free commercial flight, but to get on that plane, you'd have to go through an examination that few paying customers would want to subject themselves to. We have to, in the name of Homeland Security, not simply build higher walls, more walls, demand more answers to questions, subject Americans to more scrutiny, more screening. And we cannot do this at the cost of sacrificing who we are as a nation of people who value freedom of movement, privacy, their civil liberties, cherish diversity, cherish our immigrant heritage, and people who are not afraid. So every day I think about striking that right balance for Homeland Security.

How did you feel when it became obvious you were going to be the Secretary of Homeland Security?

I was quite surprised when [President Obama] asked me to take on this job. I never fashioned myself to be Secretary of Homeland Security, so my first reaction was, 'Why me?' I will confide to you I spoke to three people about this job. I spoke to my wife, I spoke to Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, my two former clients as Secretary of Defense, and I asked their judgment. I value their judgment greatly. And they both did not discourage me and in fact, they encouraged me to accept the position and so I did. It is a very big organization and I have not run a large organization of 240,000 people before so I took up the challenge and went through the Senate confirmation process. I am certain that this will be the last time I go through a Senate confirmation. I am certain of that. So my first reaction was, 'Why me,' but then my second reaction was, 'How could I say no?'

You mentioned the Unity of Effort Memo; can you point to anything that spurred your desire to put that out?

The desire to achieve greater efficiencies. My Chief of Staff Christian Marrone and I are both from the Department of Defense. The creation of DHS in 2003 was the largest realignment in government since 1947 when the Department of Defense was created. And DoD, now 67 years later, still has growing pains. They still in DoD do not have, as far as I know, an audited financial statement for the entire department, which we have achieved. So just imagine where DoD was 11 years into it, in 1958, in its development.

So in any large decentralized organization, you need to build a more mature budget process and acquisition process. So in the absence of that, the natural tendency is to be stovepiped and with stovepiping, obviously there is going to be redundancy and a need for greater efficiency. So that's really what motivates this.

One of the things that I am very pleased about we have nominated somebody to be the new undersecretary for management by the name of Russell Deyo. Russ I've known for 10 years. I recruited him for this job and like me, he's a fool for public service, so he agreed to go for the vetting process and accept the challenge. Russ used to be the vice president for administration at Johnson & Johnson. Johnson & Johnson is in many respects like DHS in that it is a large decentralized conglomerate of the overarching umbrella of health care, but, within that, are many components that do many distinct things. We think of Band-Aids and baby powder, but it is also surgical equipment, Tylenol, a host of things, and it is, I think, the largest health care company in the world with the broad umbrella of J&J. So I asked Russ if he would come on and help us build the management processes within DHS, based on that experience. He was nominated, and I am hoping that he will be confirmed quickly.

Compared to DoD, you don't have the deep program planning, budgeting, POM [Program Objective Memorandum] process that DoD has. You don't have the Joint Staff. ...

How do you feel the department's employees been stymied by the lack of those kinds of supporting organizations?

There's a natural progression that's going to occur with the creation of any large department like this. Goldwater Nichols was 1986. The creation of DoD was 1947, so that's a spread of 39 years. I do believe that one of the things we should think about doing — and this is part of the southern campaign plan I mentioned — is the concept of a regional director that has control in some respects of all of the DHS resources or at least some of them in his or her AOR [area of responsibility]. When I go to [the Border Patrol's] McAllen Station in Texas and I'm sitting in a conference room with Border Patrol, port security, Immigration Customs Enforcement, Coast Guard, FEMA, CIS [Citizenship and Immigration Services]; the only person all those people have in common is me and there's nobody in between them and me in the command and control structure.

So there's a model for this. In Arizona, they have an area commander that controls at least some of the DHS assets in his AOR, and I think we need to think about — and it's a lot to think about in the details, the devil is going to be in the details — but I believe that we need to think about moving in that direction for a more effective pursuit of our mission.

I have a daughter and son-in-law who are in one of the DHS components. I asked about the color purple for them and what that meant. And I was surprised a little by their reaction, because I thought they would be defensive of their component and their mission. But their reaction was that they don't have all the resources they need, and a more blended area of responsibility would be a more effective use of resources — and that's coming from the trenches. I thought it was interesting.

That's not surprising. One of the things that's interesting about our department: A lot of our revenue comes from fees. CIS is a fee-based organization. TSA [Transportation Security Administration] is, to a very large extent. Of the $60 billion [DHS budget], we depend on the Congress for about $38 billion or $39 billion of it. And then included in the $60 billion is what Congress gives us for the Disaster Relief Fund, and then the rest is fees. So a large part of our department pays for itself through fees.

We are in a fiscally challenged environment right now. There's much more that I would like to do with the resources we have; much more we need to do. I had to reprogram $405 million away from vital homeland security missions to pay for the surge of resources on the southwest border this summer. We've asked the Congress for supplemental funding; we didn't get it, so I had to reprogram away. I'm still hoping that they'll give us additional funding for fiscal 2015 of another $1.2 or $1.5 billion. We're in a fiscally constrained environment very definitely, and so we need to find efficiencies. We need to find a more efficient way to do our job. And I'm hoping that the business community will appreciate that and appreciate how a more strategic approach to acquisition, to contracting, will benefit everybody.

Do you see soon the ideas that we see from the Pentagon — five-year expense plans, strategic plans, those kinds of procedures and processes — occurring more?

Well, we just went through the exercise of a quadrennial Homeland Security Review. A large part of going through that exercise is just what you suggest. But I agree, we probably need to build a more mature process like DoD, like other large federal agencies that've been around longer, for a more strategic longer-term approach to how we conduct business. I don't know how many advisory boards the Department of Defense has — I'm sure we don't have as many — but we might be able to use a few more.

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