Federal Coach: Knitting DHS pieces together

June 25, 2013

Until March, Noah Kroloff was at the center of the action for the Department of Homeland Security as chief of staff to Secretary Janet Napolitano. Before joining the federal government in 2009, Kroloff led Napolitano’s 2006 gubernatorial reelection campaign in Arizona and then served as deputy chief of staff in Napolitano’s second term. Kroloff discusses management challenges, employee morale and DHS’s future with Tom Fox. A guest writer for On Leadership, Fox is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Knitting pieces together

Q. What management challenges did you face at DHS?

DHS is a relatively young agency, certainly by federal government standards. When Secretary Napolitano got there it was under 10 years old. It’s also the third-largest agency, with 240,000 employees and 22 agencies merged into one.

The management challenges involved continuing to integrate these many agencies into one. The challenges were also opportunities, and that’s how we looked at them. With every new policy, program or management decision, there was an opportunity to do something new and creative. You have these really extraordinary organizations that are wrapped into a new agency where new operations and systems are being built. It’s a really wonderful thing to be involved with.

How did you manage requests for information from Congress and component agencies?

You work very, very hard and you try your best to communicate and be both a listener and a thoughtful responder. It sometimes takes a little bit of time to filter information through the department and to get that information out, but for a department of its size, I think DHS is really pretty nimble, all things considered.

Employee surveys show low morale has been an issue at DHS since its creation. What has caused the morale problem, and what steps is the agency taking to improve the situation?

I think morale can be a challenge in a young agency like DHS that sometimes ends up in the middle of a political football game over tough issues like immigration enforcement or security at our airports. You’re there trying to protect the traveling public, but if someone makes a mistake, it turns into a media craze. That can really take a toll on morale. One of the things that we really try to impress on employees is that they are there to protect the public, and they just have to keep doing as good a job as they can do.

How has the pay freeze affected employee morale and the ability of DHS to deliver vital services?

Pay freezes always take a toll. It’s very hard when you’re out working the line at the border all day long, you’re exhausted and you know that you aren’t going to see any improvements in your pay. Day to day, these people are out there protecting their country. In the long term, the government really does need to look at how we’re supporting our rank-and-file law enforcement and public-safety officials. These are tough jobs. People are great about thanking our public-safety officials for what they do, but there’s a lot more to it than just giving thanks.

Has DHS made progress during the past four years transforming the original 22 component agencies into one unified department?

I think a lot of progress has been made. We were able to build on the work of Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff in ways that enabled the components of DHS to work more cooperatively to solve challenges and to enhance security. There are some really clear examples that are benefiting people directly that wouldn’t have even been contemplated six years ago. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), for example, has partnered with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on a program called Pre-Check, where members who are frequent flyers go through pre-9/11 airport security screening. CBP has its own trusted traveler program, Global Entry, and the two agencies collaborated so that if you’re in Global Entry, you can get TSA Pre-Check benefits at an airport domestically.

These programs are a great example of how a more mature federal agency like DHS can find efficiencies and partner with itself to better serve the public. When people get into those traveler lanes and they’ve made it through in five minutes instead of 45 minutes, they realize that their government and DHS are doing some innovative things to try to facilitate easier travel while bolstering security and safety.

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