On the front page of today’s New York Times is an article describing the trip taken by John McCain to New Orleans, where he promised that the type of “terrible and disgraceful” mismanagement of the response to Hurricane Katrina will not happen if we send him to the White House next January. He faulted FEMA’s response and its lack of communication and logistics capabilities, and said that he recommended private companies work with the agency during a crisis for better functioning.
This brings me to today’s topic. The Department of Homeland Security is five years old, and the next president and Congress have the chance to reorganize the agency to make it function properly. After the 9/11 attacks, the solution of gathering all the relevant agencies under one umbrella made sense, in hopes that an efficient chain of command would be the right tool for preventing future attacks or responding properly to an attack should one happen again.
For some background reading on the formation of DHS and its state as of last year, I’ll direct you to a document published last spring in The Wilson Quarterly by Paul Light, a professor at NYU. A few things stood out to me. First, the department ranks last or near the bottom of 36 federal agencies in job satisfaction, leadership, and results-oriented performance. This says, essentially, that people are unhappy, their leadership is ineffective, and their organizational culture is not productive. Also, Light suggests that the DHS mission might be too broad to be useful, in that its goal is to protect all of us from everything that could enter our borders and harm us — people, computer bugs, storms, you name it. At one time or another, we’ve all bitten off more than we can chew in the way of commitments and have been forced to pare down our activities in order to get something, anything, done. Was the DHS in its initial formation too ambitious a project?
While the agency is taking a lot of hits in the press and elsewhere, it’s important to note that we haven’t had another terror attack after 9/11. DHS can count that among their successes, and the DHS is more than happy to describe all of them for you on their home page. So, since the basics seem to be covered, should we cut them some slack and give Secretary Chertoff and company time to make the merger of 22 separate agencies work?
Light put it well when he wrote, “In coping with the great uncertainty involved in defending against terrorism, four characteristics are vital: alertness, agility, adaptability, and alignment around a core mission.” What do you think? If DHS doesn’t have those characteristics today, are they attainable in the near term? Can we move toward achieving those benchmarks with minor tweaking, such as supplementing operations with elements from private industry as Senator McCain suggests, or do we need to come together and overhaul the whole thing, mission and structure, perhaps separating out readiness and response to natural disasters from the task of preventing terror attacks?