By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Many members of Congress are frustrated by the Department of Homeland Security's performance as it nears the fourth anniversary of its launch. The department's woes include contracting and budget problems, a sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, turnover in senior ranks and a workforce that gives low scores to its senior leadership in attitude surveys.
In a bid to improve all that, key senators would elevate the department's top management job and enhance its stability.
The department operates with an undersecretary for management, but a bill introduced yesterday would replace the job with a higher rank, deputy secretary for management, who would be designated the No. 3 official at Homeland Security.
The person holding the job would serve for at least five years, according to a draft of the bill. That would about double the time that the average political appointee stays in office. The fixed term would allow an appointee to outlast a secretary or a change in administrations.
Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), the bill's chief sponsor, said he thinks the existing undersecretary position "lacks sufficient authority to direct the type of sustained leadership and overarching management integration and transformation strategy that is needed department-wide."
The undersecretary for management is Paul A. Schneider, who was confirmed by the Senate in December. He is the department's second management chief, succeeding Janet Hale, who resigned in May. A Homeland Security spokesman said the department does not comment on pending legislation.
Voinovich introduced a similar bill in September 2005, but it never got traction. This version has more co-sponsors, including Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii). Akaka chairs the Senate's federal workforce subcommittee, and Voinovich is the panel's ranking member. Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) also have joined as co-sponsors, Voinovich said in a statement.
The proposal appears to follow recommendations offered for the past two years by David M. Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office, Congress's watchdog agency. He has championed the idea of a full-time "chief management official" for large departments that are vulnerable to waste, fraud and mismanagement.
But the Bush administration has seemed cool to the idea of setting up management czars. For example, Pentagon officials have said creating a chief management official for the Defense Department would create more bureaucracy and slow down the flow of information to the defense secretary. Other officials have warned that creating a management post would likely raise the ire of deputy secretaries, who see themselves as the chief operating officers in Cabinet departments.
Voinovich said his plan would ensure that the deputy secretary at Homeland Security, the No. 2 official, would continue to be the secretary's "first assistant on all policy matters," while the newly created deputy secretary for management would be the secretary's chief adviser on "the development of sustained, long-term management strategies."
Under Voinovich's bill, the deputy secretary for management would be required to have "extensive executive level leadership and management experience in the public or private sector" and "a demonstrated ability to manage large and complex organizations."
The merger of 22 agencies that created the department was one of the largest reorganizations ever attempted by the government and involved about 180,000 employees. The Bush administration and Congress hoped the merger would strengthen border security and foster rapid response to terrorist threats after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But the department has not jelled as expected. Voinovich pointed out that the GAO has placed the department on its "high risk" list because an "array of management and programmatic challenges" limit homeland security strategies and operations.
Voinovich also noted that the department's inspector general and the Homeland Security Advisory Council, an outside group set up to help department officials, have expressed concerns about the department's management and organizational problems.
The Ohio senator, who has served as a mayor and governor in his home state, said he understands that Homeland Security "is also busy putting out fires." He added, "But the connection between good management practices and operational success should not be lost."