Panel flags DHS transition fears

Post-inauguration steps?

In addition to recommendations for the Homeland Security Department under the current administration, the National Academy of Public Administration also had some suggestions for what DHS should do after the inauguration. It said that under a new administration, the department should:

1. Conduct joint training and operational exercises with career and noncareer employees and an early comprehensive scenario exercise.

2. Fill the vacancies in the Federal Emergency Management Agency and deputy openings with career employees.

3. Work with Congress to consider making some political positions
into career roles.

Stability first, then change. Many experts say that sequence is essential to national security as the Homeland Security Department prepares for the transition to a new administration.

Many experts are concerned about the potential for a terrorist attack between now and several months after the inauguration.

In its recent report on DHS’ transition planning, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) noted that terrorist incidents often coincide with presidential transitions. The 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon occurred less than a year after President Bush took office. Recent history in other countries also concerns observers because bombings in Madrid and London happened shortly before and after elections.

“Extended vacancies in political positions and changes in leadership in key DHS operating units — particularly when combined with terrorist motives to affect the outcome of the election or the success of the newly elected administration — could substantially increase the risk that a terrorist attack will be attempted in the United States,” the report states.

Some observers say the next president should overhaul DHS to make it function as an integrated organization rather than a collection of independent agencies. But as they wonder what Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have in mind for the department, most agree that stability, not change, should be the first priority.

Summer work
The NAPA report, released in June, agrees with DHS that the department has been working on a plan for a smooth transition, but it identifies some heavy-lifting that the department must do during the coming months.

Congress requested the independent study to examine the department’s staffing structure to ensure that it would be ready for the transition. Lawmakers have expressed concern about DHS’ progress in planning for transition, in particular its staffing structure.

In May, after discussions between the White House and Congress, the Bush administration turned over hundreds of pages of transition planning documents requested by Democratic leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee. The administration is still crafting its final transition plan, which it will submit to Congress in October.

But department officials have already begun preparing for the change. For example, as recommended by NAPA, DHS has appointed a full-time transition coordinator.

Larry Orluskie, a DHS spokesman, said the department agreed with NAPA’s recommendations and, since the study ended in April, has continued to implement many of them.

“The bottom line on this whole thing is that the change in administration is going to have minimal impact on the frontline operations,” he said, adding that DHS’ employees will remain dedicated to their jobs regardless of who becomes the next president.

In all, the NAPA expert panel recommended 22 steps DHS officials should take to ensure that the department’s first transition to a new administration is seamless.

The NAPA study also specifies when DHS should fulfill the recommendations. For example, between now and the Democratic and Republican conventions later this summer, DHS should fill Senior Executive Service positions in addition to appointing a full-time transition coordinator, the report states.

Frank Chellino, the NAPA panel’s chairman, said hiring people to fill those positions should be a top priority for the department. The panel found that as of March 20, 139 of DHS’ 775 executive positions were vacant.

Only 83 of all executive positions are politically appointed, which ranks among the lowest percentage of political appointees in senior positions among Cabinet-level agencies. That’s good news for DHS because career positions are easier to fill quickly. Nevertheless, the number of open positions is worrisome, Chellino said.

“What we’re suggesting in this time in our history when we are at war…and when the threat of terrorism is more prevalent than ever before in our lifetime [is] that [DHS] in particular should not be allowed to go with unfilled critical positions,” he said.

Orluskie said many of the politically appointed senior executives work at DHS’ headquarters and work directly for the secretary’s office. That means that daily operations at component agencies are less susceptible to a personnel flux. However, headquarters needs to plan for continuity of agencywide initiatives that can be centrally coordinated, such as computer integration, budgeting, financing, personnel, and the command and control structure for a crisis, Chellino said. 

“There’s more of a question at the DHS headquarters level than there is at the element level just because…they are still sorting themselves out at DHS headquarters level,” he added.

The panel’s research showed that the department has already identified the career employees who will be expected to take on additional responsibilities during the transition, another recommendation that the panel had for DHS.

Convention through inauguration
As the presidential campaign progresses and the election approaches, many observers are focused on how the candidates are preparing for the transition.

For example, the NAPA experts advised that the Bush administration ask the presidential candidates to name a potential homeland security transition team and issue prompt security clearances for those officials before the election. The panel also recommended that after the election, the new president choose a DHS secretary quickly so that person can be sworn in on Inauguration Day.

Meanwhile, DHS should also establish training programs for new executive employees, according to the study.

In a January report, the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Administration Transition Task Force emphasized the need to fill critical homeland security positions as soon as possible.

“The ATTF believes that the incoming and outgoing administrations must work closely together during the administration transition,” the report states. “It is extremely clear that successful transitions require a shared commitment to ensuring a smooth transition of power.”

Orluskie said the department is making sure that incoming employees have everything they need when they arrive.

2009 and beyond
The NAPA report found that DHS needs to better integrate its 22 component agencies, many of which operate as stand-alone organizations. The report states that the components’ chain of command will remain mostly intact during the transition, but if there are management gaps at DHS’ headquarters, they could hamper coordination among agencies.

For many observers, that finding raises the question about what should happen after the transition is complete. Should the next president significantly reorganize DHS or simply institutionalize the current structure?

James Carafano, a senior research fellow and homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, said more energy should be focused on the White House’s Homeland Security Council and state and local homeland security partners rather than micromanaging the department.

“Nobody that seriously studies the department thinks that we need to tear the place apart,” he said.

On the other hand, Penrose Albright, who was with DHS at its inception, said he believes that significant change is crucial.

Albright said component agencies are so independent that reorganization is necessary to create one cohesive department. Although he cautioned against taking a reckless approach to restructuring, Albright said the current situation, in which components have their own policy and procurement teams, is untenable.

“If you are a contractor you don’t try to sell to DHS, you sell to TSA or CBP,” he said.

In August 2005, Albright left DHS as assistant secretary for science and technology and now is managing director at Civitas Group, a consulting firm, which he said does some work with the department. 

However, some observers say an incoming administration should avoid making significant changes to the department right after coming into office.

“I believe the next administration should resist the urge to eliminate or immediately reorganize the department in the first 100 days,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Emergency Communications, Preparedness and Response Subcommittee, said on July 9. 

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