DHS Secretary Johnson offers few insights into management priorities

Wednesday - 2/26/2014, 2:16pm EST

Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Johnson made his first appearance before House lawmakers Wednesday promising to make improving agency morale a top priority.

Johnson, who the Senate confirmed in December, faced only a smattering of management related questions. House Homeland Security Committee lawmakers focused mainly on border security, terrorist threats to the country and DHS' law enforcement role around immigration.

Jeh Johnson, secretary, Homeland Security Department (DHS photo)

During the mostly collegial questions and answers, Johnson promised to communicate and work more closely with the committee across a range of issues as many members repeated their frustrations over how his predecessor, Janet Napolitano, conducted business with the committee.

"I appreciate your outreach to me over the past few months to discuss our shared concerns about issues of national security. I am committed to solving these challenges and look forward to working constructively with you," said Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the committee chairman. "I am hopeful with your Department of Defense (DOD) experience you will be able to best organize your staff with both strategists and planners needed to address border security at the national strategic level."

Johnson's appearance before the House nearly coincides with the 11th anniversary of DHS coming together as an agency on March 3.

A champion for DHS employees

Johnson's management strategy still is coming together. He offered-and was asked- very little about how he will address the employee morale issue, the challenges around acquisition and his vision of the One DHS Napolitano spoke often about.

Johnson said during his opening statement that he will be a "champion" for DHS employees.

"I intend to constantly remind our workforce of the critical importance of their homeland security mission, and that the department's greatest asset in the pursuit of that mission is our people," he said.

Part of that effort of being a champion is getting administratively uncontrollable overtime both under control and setting policies for how employees should expect to use it.

Johnson said a departmental review of AUO is in process and he looks forward to the findings.

Late last month, DHS suspended the use of AUO for about 900 employees whose duties do not meet the requirements, including some who work in headquarters offices, as training instructors and those have been collecting AUO pay inappropriately.

The other morale related issue that came up during the hearing was around DHS' new headquarters at the St. Elizabeths campus in Washington, D.C.

So far only the Coast Guard's headquarters is completed.

Back to the drawing board?

Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said Johnson should rethink DHS' headquarters at St. Elizabeths as it's costing too much and will take too long.

"The costs now ballooned to something like $4.5 billion and the completion date's moved out from 2015 to 2026. Frankly, I just fail to see how this is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars to spend this kind of money for a headquarters, and I'm just really disappointed in the way it's played out," Hudson said. "I realize decisions were made on these headquarters before your tenure and frankly before I got here. So my question to you is would you be willing to work with us, can you go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan that doesn't cost us $4.5 billion to meet the needs of the department?"

Johnson said he's asked DHS officials to go back to the General Services Administration to work on a plan going forward.

"I do believe there is a value for a one team, one mission message if you have all the components in one headquarters. I've seen that in the Pentagon in the E Ring," he said. "I think that the morale of DHS, unity of mission, would go a long way if we could get to a headquarters. I also believe we ought to finish what we started. We're investing a lot of money in this project and there is a certain wisdom to finishing what you started. The question becomes the timeline pursuant to which you finish it."

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency, released a report last month calling in to question the St. Elizabeths project and whether DHS did the proper planning analysis on the front end.

A major reason for the delayed timeline for St. Elizabeths is because Congress cut funding over the last few years, appropriating only enough money to complete the Coast Guard's headquarters.

A third morale buster is the lack of senior leadership in permanent positions.

McCaul said DHS' current senior leadership vacancy rate is 38 percent.

Johnson said he's activity working to fill the department's senior management positions and works on it on a daily basis.

Johnson also mentioned the need to protect federal networks and work with critical infrastructure providers to protect their systems and networks from cyber attacks. He offered no new details on how DHS would evolve in this area.

"In the 10-plus years since the department was established, some progress has been made but, as the Comptroller General and any Member of this Committee can tell you, more needs to be done for DHS to become the agency that Congress envisioned and the American people deserve," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the committee. "Your immediate predecessor promoted the concept of 'One DHS' but structural challenges persist that date back to when 22 independent offices and agencies were essentially thrown together under one roof. As you have undoubtedly learned by now, DHS components essentially function as independent entities. All-too-often, components see directives from headquarters as advisory. That has to stop. For 'One DHS' to truly have meaning, components must adhere to departmentwide policies and mandates."

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