Is there a more thankless job than Homeland Security Secretary?
Hard to find one.
The hours are long, the pressure’s intense, there’s no glamorous travel involved, and the measure of success is that... nothing bad happens.
But DHS chief Janet Napolitano might have identified an even tougher gig — she announced on Friday that she’s leaving to be president of the University of California system.
Seems Napolitano has a taste for demanding posts. The kind of jobs where, if one thing goes wrong, you’re the one left holding the bag.
Heading DHS is thought to be the hardest, least appreciated Cabinet job. It’s the newest position in that elite club — DHS was created in 2002 — so there’s a sense that you’re the new kid on the block. (Not to mention that you practically get seated at the children’s table during Cabinet meetings since primo seats are assigned based on the date on which the secretary’s agency was created.)
Leading DHS is a management nightmare: The agency was created from dozens of smaller agencies, and it consistently ranks as one of the worst places in the federal government to work.
The portfolio is vast, and the stakes are high. “It’s almost easier to say what you don’t worry about than what you need to be worried about at any given time,” Napolitano said in a 2011 forum marking the department’s anniversary.
Rich Cooper, a principal at government relations firm Catalyst Partners, also notes that the plethora of committees with jurisdiction over the department and overzealous congressional oversight add to the headache. “It’s like being nibbled to death by guppies,” he says. “You have 535 members of Congress who think they know how to do the job better.”
Plus, you constantly have to apologize for being the one to make people take off their shoes at airports.
But being the head of the sprawling — and troubled — UC system is surely no cakewalk, either. Ten campuses, nearly 200,000 employees, and a shaky financial picture make it the kind of challenge that only someone who seems to relish stress like Napolitano does would love.
“The size and scope speaks for itself, but what is really challenging there is the diversity,” says John Thornburgh, the managing partner of the higher education practice for executive-search firm Witt/Keiffer. “Not just in the students, but in the institutions — you have everything from large research institutes with prestigious scholars to more comprehensive ones that focus on undergraduate teaching.”
Cooper suggests that Napolitano is simply “trading one asylum for another.”
What’s that they say about frying pans and fires?