Homeland Security's Struggle

By David Ignatius
Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Department of Homeland Security celebrates its fifth birthday this week, and hopefully not with a bang. This has to be the only agency in government whose biggest achievement is when nothing happens.

Michael Chertoff, who runs the agency, may have the most underappreciated job in Washington. Other agencies have grand buildings and proud traditions. DHS has a ramshackle, hand-me-down headquarters that looks like a budget motel. The offices are modest, the carpets ratty; the security staff at the gate wastes time shuffling cumbersome paper forms.

Five years on, the department is very much a work in progress -- still struggling to mesh the 22 agencies that were combined to create a sprawling security establishment with about 208,000 employees. Critics say it remains more a collection of bureaucratic parts than a unitary Cabinet department.

Homeland Security illustrates a paradox of how Washington operates. Its work is quite literally a matter of life and death for the nation. But despite that intrinsic importance, it is low on the capital's totem pole. What attention it gets from Congress and the media is mostly second-guessing when something goes wrong. It is a crucial nexis of public-sector management in an administration that mistrusts and devalues the public sector.

I asked Chertoff the other day to reflect on what lessons he has learned about government in his three years running the agency. The conversation focused not on the policy issues surrounding terrorism but on the process issues of making a big, lumpy government bureaucracy work. Chertoff surprised me with his candor in describing the obstacles that make it hard to manage a government agency effectively.

The federal government "is an inherently conservative system, built to prevent sudden change," explained Chertoff. That Washington culture of inertia was a special problem for an agency that was created essentially from scratch after a searing national crisis. Each of the new department's components had its own congressional overseers who didn't want to give up jurisdiction, with the result that, by Chertoff's count, the department's budget today is overseen by 86 congressional committees and subcommittees.

"It's very hard to set priorities," Chertoff said. "You spend a lot of time fending off people who have one specific thing they want to get done and don't care about the larger mission."

Chertoff described three mind-sets that get in the way of making good decisions. The first he called "anecdotalism" -- meaning the ability of a few noisy or litigious people with a "sob story" to block government actions that are in the interest of everyone else. "Yes, someone may get hurt in some way, so the argument becomes, let's not do it." He noted the protests of shopkeepers near the borders that their businesses will suffer because of new rules that require secure documentation for all travelers, even those coming for a few hours of shopping.

A second impediment is the universal problem of "not in my back yard." Here, he cited the example of a landowner in the Southwest who sued to block a border fence -- not across his property but a neighbor's -- because it might push illegal immigrants onto his land.

A third obstacle is "not in my term of office," which Chertoff defined as "the unwillingness of political leaders to make an investment now when the benefits won't accrue until later." One example was the failure over many decades to spend the money to repair New Orleans's system of levees. Chertoff's agency got hammered for its slow and poorly planned response to Hurricane Katrina, and rightly so, but he has a point that the larger failure was the refusal to spend the money that could have prevented the disaster. A new example is spending money to cope with public-health disasters that may not occur for 20 years.

Observed Chertoff: "The model is: Don't do anything until there's a catastrophe. When there's a catastrophe, find someone to punish. Then move on."

The way out of this morass of public-sector management, Chertoff argues, is to set good priorities, do what you think is right and take the heat from people who are angry about it. "If you become paralyzed and try to make everyone happy, you will certainly not progress to the goal -- and will end up making everyone unhappy."

Chertoff has made his share of mistakes as homeland security chief. But I think he's right about the larger problem of serving the public interest in a town dominated by special interests. Government officials have to have skin as thick as buffalo hide to survive the pressure. And then we wonder why so few top-notch people want to serve in Washington.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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