DHS seeks future all-stars from program manager ranks

Homeland Security Department officials now realize they have a deeper bench than they knew, and those largely unknown players can be groomed into all-star leaders, an official said Sept. 21.

In the past, the department has not recognized that the smaller, often overlooked programs might have talented managers, said Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner of the Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition at Customs and Border Protection.

DHS’ small “Level 3” programs have annual budgets of between $5 million and $50 million each, and they are overshadowed by the “Level 1” programs, such as SBINet, that have an annual cost exceeding $100 million. The Level 1 programs are  those that are reported on in mainstream media outlets, that the Homeland Security Secretary watches closely and that Congress takes note of. The Level 3 programs are essentially unknown beyond their office doors.

As for the managers of small programs, Borkowski described them as “the people who accidentally got appointed. Their program is fairly small, but they’re really talented.”

“What I’m seeing is that’s the bench strength. Those are the people who will become the Level 1 and Level 2 program managers,” Borkowski told the House Homeland Security Committee’s Oversight, Investigations, and Management Subcommittee.

The subcommittee was asking a panel of DHS officials about acquisition management challenges that DHS continually faces. 

“When I look at the problems at DHS and how to fix DHS, so many of these issues are acquisition or management related more than anything,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), subcommittee chairman.

The shortage of employees and managerial talent has slowed adoption of policies. For instance, department-wide acquisition and management directives were released in 2008, but DHS components and managers only now are beginning to adhere to the guidance. Nick Nayak, chief procurement officer at DHS, said fewer transitions and stable leadership has helped the agency's diverse components become more consistent.

Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said DHS has struggled with training employees and getting workers with sufficient experience in charge of programs. This has been a reoccurring theme the subcommittee has heard, Keating said. A series of recent DHS management hearings have raised  the issue of transition planning and preparing the next set of leaders.

Keating said his sense is that leaders in DHS are becoming more attuned to the importance of preparing more junior employees to become their successors.

In a similar manner, DHS officials are talking with the managers of the small programs and watching them as they develop their skills through experience. “Frankly there is no substitute for experience,” Borkowski said.

Senior officials are starting to mentor them, so they can grow a farm team of managers who are from DHS, he added.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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