'Tribalism' may defeat Homeland

It was only a matter of days after President Bush unveiled his plan to take pieces from various federal agencies to create a Homeland Security Department that officials began to buttonhole Rep. Tom Davis, presenting him with lists of reasons why their agencies shouldn't be moved.

They received a frosty reception from the Virginia Republican, however, said Davis aide Melissa Wojciak.

Davis, who heads the House Government Reform Committee's Technology and Procurement Policy Subcommittee, staunchly supports Bush's plan, Wojciak told a gathering of technology experts June 25.

But the almost instinctive effort to undermine the president's plan illuminates what is likely to be the biggest problem for the Homeland Security Department — "tribalism."

While the administration's senior policymakers wrestle with problems such as information sharing, interoperability and database integration, rank and file government workers grapple with fear of change, said organizational psychologist Joyce Doria.

"People choose the familiar — even the dysfunctional — over change," she said. Wojciak and Doria spoke at E-Gov's Homeland Security 2002 conference in Washington D.C.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it has become clear that among them, various government agencies had information and warnings that, if shared, might have alerted them to the terrorist danger.

Much discussion since then has focused on how to get agencies to share information and better communicate with one another.

It will take technology to solve some of the problems, but "the technology does exist," said Doria, who is a vice president at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. "The hurdles are more bureaucratic than technical."

Developing workable plans to use technology to improve teamwork among agencies will be the easy part. Getting agencies to accept them will be the real challenge, she said.

"Change is painful," and those who plan for significant change typically underestimate the difficulty of getting workers and managers to accept change, she said. "Man is by nature tribal," and convincing people to accept outside ideas, leaders and ways of doing things is difficult.

"Tribal ways will beat change every time if you're not careful," Doria said.

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