Transcript

Job Vacancies At DHS Said To Hurt U.S. Preparedness

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Spencer Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 9, 2007; 1:00 PM

The Bush administration has failed to fill roughly a quarter of the top leadership posts at the Department of Homeland Security, creating a "gaping hole" in the nation's preparedness for a terrorist attack or other threat, according to a congressional report to be released today.

Washington Post staff writer Spencer Hsu was online Monday, July 9, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the findings.

As of May 1, Homeland Security had 138 vacancies among its top 575 positions, with the greatest voids reported in its policy, legal and intelligence sections, as well as in immigration agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Coast Guard. The vacant slots include presidential, senior executive and other high-level appointments, according to the report by the majority staff of the House Homeland Security Committee.

A DHS spokesman challenged the report's tally, saying that it is skewed by a sudden expansion this spring in the number of top management jobs. Before then, only 12 percent of positions were unfilled in a department that has always been thinly staffed at headquarters, spokesman Russ Knocke said.

A transcript follows.

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Spencer Hsu: Hello everyone, thank you for joining us to talk about today's story on the Department of Homeland Security. Hope you had a good weekend, what's on your minds?

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Washington, D.C.: This news sounds alarming. Are you intimating that should someone attack the U.S., that we would be as unprepared as New Orleans was when Hurricane Katrina hit?

Spencer Hsu: The thrust of the House Homeland Security Committee majority staff's report is that 24 percent of top executive positions are unfilled. The report says, "The gaping hole in Department executive resources is a homeland security issue that must be addressed and rectified immediately."

The report follows a piece in the respected National Journal last month that quoted analysts who were concerned that DHS vacancies could in January 2009 magnify the usual problem that occurs during presidential transitions, a drop off in expertise. As everyone remembers, the 9/11 attacks came eight months into the current President Bush's term, and afterward there was some questioning about whether the ball was dropped in terms of focus on al Qaeda.

I'm not sure that's intimating one conclusion or another, but that it is a factor that is well understood by DHS's secretariat.

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Wheaton, Md.: Shouldn't the president and DHS be praised for not having filled these positions, therefore saving the taxpayers millions of dollars?

Spencer Hsu: Now this is an interesting point. I guess it goes to the different things folks want from government. They want it to be low cost and small. But sometimes you get what you pay for, and in the arena of security, obviously many people think that's not enough. The harder question might be that when the government spends huge amounts on defense and homeland security, is the money being prioritized in the most effective and efficient ways?

I think there have been many concerns that DHS has not had enough people at the top of the pyramid directing the actions of the rest of the bureaucracy.

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Near Washington: I just accepted a job with DHS and it sure is disconcerting to see what I am getting myself into. To current DHS employees, are things as bad as they sound?

Spencer Hsu: Boy, I'd love to hear more from DHS employees, who are the ones in the know, either in this chat, or by email sent to my clickable byline on the WashingtonPost.com Web site.

What is clear is that in the January update of the annual Office of Personal Management's survey, DHS continues to rank at the bottom of federal agencies in personnel satisfaction. It's important to recognize the countless contributions of dedicated, highly skilled professionals in government across DHS agencies. I imagine things sometimes look worse when a skeptical Congress or other outsiders present reports based on limited facts. On the other hand, I have heard over the years deep frustrations with many DHS agencies that predate the department, such as within the former Immigration and Naturalization Services, and unhappiness by long time career professionals at FEMA.

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washingtonpost.com: Job Vacancies At DHS Said To Hurt U.S. Preparedness ( Post, July 9)

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Laurel, Md.: I work for a government agency, and one of the most important things you notice here is how little of the work changes when the executive suite is shuffled.

I'd be a lot more concerned about a 25 percent shortage of airport screeners than people who spend their time developing things like procurement strategies and vision statements.

Spencer Hsu: Great point, and well taken too.

I think the rub is, everybody understands the point of airport screeners. The idea is to keep airplanes safe. But what about developing screening technology to keep explosive liquids off planes, so that you don't preoccupy so many screeners and inconvenience passengers with that confounding 3 oz. package rule? DHS has struggled with its scientific research, and management has been a major obstacle.

And what about other threats that intelligence analysts cite, but are harder to prevent, like hazardous chemicals. Or beefing up coordination and cooperation between DHS intelligence components and state and local departments. Or improving computer systems to share data among or between law enforcement and immigration agencies.

Government is good at doing simple, repetitive things, but struggles to do more complicated projects that have bigger bang for the buck. Just because government struggles though, it's not clear to me the answer is not to try to tackle the bigger problems.

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Fairfax, Va.: This smells a bit political and the chairman of the report committee is a Democrat, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson. Is it?

Spencer Hsu: Very good point. That is exactly so, and I tried to make clear it was from the majority staff.

One interesting note, though is that the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), also commented and agreed with the conclusions of the report.

I think everyone acknowledges fights between Congress and the administration are inherently political. But some of the problems of filling seats and stocking talented, qualified people are not Republican or Democratic concerns.

Having said that, Congress is in the hands of a party opposed to the president, so you're seeing more demands for accountability backed up by real data, not just rhetoric. And both parties are trying to position themselves on homeland security issues heading into next year's campaign, which I think is important for people to hear and think about.

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Bowie, Md.: Why can't DHS be a non-partisan, non-politicized, separate arm of the government run by non-political appointees? Laugh if you will at the analogy, but the Post Office, as one example, seems to get things done without swaying to political winds.

Spencer Hsu: Yes, former Secretary Tom Ridge often had his spokesman say that "homeland security is not political." But I'm not sure that that is possible, given the department's wide ranging assets. It's a huge grant-giver. It has agents in many, many congressional districts. It enforces immigration laws. I think the department might well gain from having leadership respected by both parties in this highly partisan time, and I think Secretary Chertoff tried to demonstrate such leadership by appealing to Republican and Democratic senators in the immigration debate. But given the politicization of homeland security, I doubt that will happen soon.

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Vienna, Va.: In my past experience applying for government jobs, the process seems to be very difficult and not streamlined. Could a lot of these vacancies be the result of the government not having a uniformed, streamlined way of applying for government positions. The amount of forms and KSAs you have to fill out seem overwhelming sometimes that it makes me want to not even bother applying for a position in the DHS. Anyway, I did send in an application for a position in the TSA this weekend. Wish me luck!

Spencer Hsu: Good luck. I've gotten a number of emails about how complicated and bureaucratic this process is. Fairness sometimes doesn't equal speed.

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Annandale, Va.: What are the average number of political appointments in other agencies? A number in the hundreds sounds a little high and unusual. It's a real moral booster to have hundreds of outsiders promoted above you.

Spencer Hsu: I don't know what the average is, but National Journal reported that of the two departments bigger than DHS, the Department of Veterans Affairs had 64 political appointees, and the Pentagon had 283. Keep in mind, the Pentagon has something like 2 million workers, or about 10 times as many as DHS. So DHS is on the upper end.

I'm curious if any of our readers familiar with DHS or its legacy agencies has a better idea about this.

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Chantilly, Va. :"I'd be a lot more concerned about a 25 percent shortage of airport screeners than people who spend their time developing things like procurement strategies and vision statements."

This is an excellent point and one that while I realize you may be reluctant to get into is a very important distinction. My wife and I are in our mid-30s and have worked for the government for 10 years. We are both getting out after this year because we are both sick of the complacency and number of senior officials who are completely happy being average.

Since it is impossible to fire someone in the federal government we both work for people who will take no risks at all. Why bother it does them no good and skating along means they can make it to their 20 without doing any heavy lifting whatsoever.

I realize this is sort of a taboo topic in D.C. No one really wants to talk about it yet we all know that it happens. This is not to say every senior government worker is like this -- quite the contrary. But I feel quite secure in saying that if 25 percent of the senior level officials left each agency the taxpayer would be much better off. Not only would it save money but the ones that were left would be much more engaged.

Spencer Hsu: Thanks for the reminder that quality is more important than quantity. If there were only a way to try both.

Any federal contract managers out there who have thoughts about this?

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Cubeland, Md.: I work for an agency that lost positions to DHS. The consensus around here (not the official agency position, mind you) is that it's been a disaster. The work that was being performed quite competently by my agency is now being ignored, downgraded or performed incompetently by DHS. The well-qualified folks who were transferred to DHS are miserable. And the mantra from DHS back to this agency is "We can't do your work because we have XYZ vacancies that we still need to fill."

Why would anyone think that an entire, 'enormous' new federal agency could be created in a matter of months? DHS was destined to fail. I hope the next administration either abolishes it, or at least substantially restructures it.

Spencer Hsu: Important points. Curious what work you're describing. Pass on details if you can.

There were the regular bureaucratic battles when folks decided which personnel to give to DHS, and the predictable shifting of priorities when the pieces were reassembled into the new department.

If there is not another shake-up of DHS, my impression is it will be up to headquarters or senior leadership to sort through and make these decisions, with the help of career people who know the history and know how things work.

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Arlington, Va.: The federal agency I work for was with out a "head" for 18 months. That is, no one had been appointed by president Bush and confirmed by Congress during that period. The fact on the ground was that we had a very competent and well respected, non-political appointee acting as the head of the agency during that time. Someone is doing those jobs, just not a political appointee. No bad thing in my opinion.

Spencer Hsu: Good point thanks for the reminder.

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St. Paul, Minn.: As an immigration attorney, I certainly see the need for more staff in immigration administration. I recently filed papers for my pro bono asylee client to receive his green card and according to the Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) they are currently processing applications from 2004. My client recently dismayingly told me his bank refused to issue him a mortgage because he was not a green card holder. The delay creates consequences in daily life.

Spencer Hsu: Thanks for the thought.

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Anonymous: Spencer:

What are the chances that the entire department might get folded back into other departments if a Democrat sits in the White House in 2009? Couldn't this amount to a great savings?

Spencer Hsu: It would be a great irony, since it was the Democrats who pushed for creating DHS over the Bush administration's objections in the first place.

I'd be interested to hear the campaigns talk about this. Given all the time, energy and opportunity cost of creating the Department, it would be astonishing if a new administration sought to do it over, and an interesting risk in event heaven forbid of a new attack.

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Washington, D.C.: I was offered a position at DHS over 6 months ago, but am still waiting for various HR hurdles to be cleared before even progressing to the security clearance processing. Granted, this is an "entry-level" (GS 9/11) position, but given my frustrating experiences with the DHS bureaucracy, I was not at all surprised to read this article. If my experience is at all representative of what qualified prospective employees have to go through, it is no wonder there are staffing problems and low morale.

Spencer Hsu: Yes, it bears repeating that there are real legitimate issues that impede government hiring.

Still, homeland security is a stated priority of the administration.

Some folks have observed that DHS and Secretary Chertoff's lead role in the immigration debate over the last year or two has been a major preoccupation.

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Alexandria Va.: After six years the TSA is still a joke. They regularly harass travelers for a bottle of water, but routinely fail to detect explosives.

Most recently during a 'secret inspector' test, TSA screeners missed a mock bomb but confiscated the bottle of water from a carry-on bag.

"Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman, declined to discuss the circumstances of the covert test at Albany International.

We don't discuss the results because they tend to paint an inaccurate picture of the competency of our work force," she said. 'The tests are designed to be incredibly difficult and TSA does anticipate a fair level of failure.'"

Fake bomb eludes airport test ( timesunion.com, July 4)

I suspect a "fair level of failure" is going to lead to hundreds of deaths some day. Why should we continue to put up with this incompetence?

Spencer Hsu: I understand the frustration, and hope like I'm sure you do that you're not proven right.

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Washington, D.C.: Has there been a reaction from Michael Chertoff?

Spencer Hsu: Secretary Chertoff's spokesman, Russ Knocke, responded in the story.

He pointed out several things, that the numbers look worse because DHS was approved to add 73 new positions last spring, and before that only 12 percent of positions were unfilled. Still, DHS is working hard on the problem that the current team will be able to hand over the keys to a new president in 18 months in better shape than it was when Chertoff got it in early 2005.

Knocke also acknowledged that the 24 percent figure is about right, maybe a digit or two off because of recent hires since May 1, when the report's data was collected.

I think Knocke noted that DHS morale suffers sometimes because Congress, outside analysts and the news media sometimes focus on attacking individuals or DHS agencies, not supporting them.

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Spencer Hsu: Thanks everyone for your questions. I've got to wrap this up now, but thanks for reading, feel free to send an e-mail. I appreciate your interest, until next time.

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