DHS brain drain grows

Departures could hurt security mission

Some government and counterterrorism experts are concerned that the departure of a number of high-ranking Homeland Security Department officials since President Bush's re-election could hinder several programs and initiatives.

In recent months, Secretary Tom Ridge, Deputy Secretary James Loy and several other top officials have left DHS or announced that they will leave soon. Even as Michael Chertoff and Michael Jackson eventually assume their positions as secretary and deputy secretary, respectively, experts said department officials need to build a cadre of senior-level career civil servants to assist future transitions.

Testifying before a Senate homeland security committee in late January, Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said only one Senior Executive Service member holds a permanent position within the secretary's office. He said presidential appointees or staffers hold the remaining

positions.

"Indeed, had there been a change in administrations as a result of the 2004 election," he said. "The mass exodus of the political appointees could have created nightmarish transition issues for the young department." Experts said it's important to remember that the department is only 2 years old and has an enormous task of integrating 22 agencies and 180,000 employees with more than 35 separate systems. And officials must also deal with criticism and oversight from Capitol Hill.

But Donald Kettl, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the departures are a serious problem because the department needs a sufficient amount of in-house expertise to handle cutting-edge technology, privacy policy, national security and a host of other issues.

"My concern is they're struggling to do that in part because a large part of the expertise they're building has been contracted [to vendors] and also in part because there hasn't been sufficient effort to build a career staff to ease their way through transitions like the one we're having right now," he said.

Although the department was established with senior officials and former politicians, bureaucratic in-fighting may have dimmed expectations, said Jeff Vining, a homeland security expert at Gartner.

"My opinion only is that the administration now engages DHS with a bit of arm's length due to multiple bureaucratic battling," he wrote in an e-mail. He added that a "consensus-builder like Ridge promising all things to all people was a wrong approach. Chertoff, in my opinion, was selected in part to improve management of DHS."

However, Elissa Davidson, a spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the department has a Senior Executive Service program patterned after those in place at other executive branch agencies.

"It is not uncommon for federal agencies to experience a high level of turnover at every job level after an election. President Bush's Cabinet was actually unusual in that it remained largely intact through his entire first term," Davidson wrote in an e-mail.

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