Creation of DHS, intelligence office a 'cautionary tale'

Tuesday - 8/30/2011, 10:30am EDT

Ron Sanders, senior executive adviser, Booz Allen Hamilton

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By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the government undertook one of the most significant government reorganizations since the end of World War II.

In the ensuing years, two new layers of national and domestic security would engrain themselves in the federal government: the Homeland Security Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

'A cautionary tale'

While the two entities differ in how they were originally structured and how they have since evolved, a new report examining management lessons in the wake of 9/11 found the creation of the two departments offers "a cautionary tale."

Based on interviews with some of the department's early officials and other research, the report,Securing the Future: Management Lessons of 9/11, describes agencies and policymakers often operating with the best of intentions.

But DHS' first few months and years, even, were rocky. The early false starts and public failings were the result of "mission overlaps and policy shortfalls, confused functional and operational roles and responsibilities, dissatisfied citizens and employees, intense political pressures and public scrutiny," the report found.

"Speed bumps is an understatement," said Ron Sanders, a senior executive adviser at Booz Allen, who contributed to the report. "These were massive transformations," he added, even more so as the United States was engaged in war on multiple fronts. "The whole country was in a heightened sense of urgency and emergency and to take on something this massive under ordinary circumstances would've been a challenge. Under those circumstances, it was monumental."

But, he said, even with those circumstances there are lessons to be drawn,and the report offers four of them:

  • A sense of buy-in to the mission among political and senior career executives is essential. While chain of command is important, "If the leadership corps is committed and held accountable for both operational and transformational objectives, progress can be made toward shaping a new organization," the report said.

  • Agency culture, values and vision — what the report calls the "soft stuff" must be embedded into the organization, but it is often the hardest to take hold.

  • Management is central to the mission. "Reorganization leaders sometimes give short shrift to the management issues that are critical to a well-functioning organization and the ability to effectively carry out the mission," according to the report. "That was especially the case with DHS and ODNI."

  • Leaders must be able to navigate the federal bureaucracy. "A new government enterprise does not exist in a vacuum, but must operate within a super system of sister departments, White House councils and czars, and congressional oversight committees," per the report. A constant reminder of that fact is the "crazy-quilt" Congressional oversight of DHS, including 88 committees or subcommittees with jurisdiction over various facets of the department.
The middle years

Part of DHS' early troubles stemmed from the lack of nearly any sort of lead time, Sanders said. Just 60 days after the passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the agency had to be up and operating, he explained.

He called the tight timing a "60-day fuse," imposed by Congress. "That meant they had to cobble together a leadership cadre from individuals, many of whom had already been confirmed in other positions elsewhere in the Executive Branch," he said.

Though much progress has been made, Sanders said it's far too early to declare victory just yet.

In agency years, DHS and ODNI are in their adolescence. "And we know how troubling adolescence can be," he said.

In these middle years, as he called them, it's even more important for the new departments to focus on management systems and leadership, "to focus on the 'soft stuff,'" he said.