Instilling in 180,000 employees the message "that we can't afford mistakes" was the most important challenge in the start-up of the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Tom Ridge said yesterday.

Ridge's remark came during a question-and-answer session after a luncheon address at the ninth annual Excellence in Government Conference at the Washington Convention Center.

A member of the audience had asked Ridge to identify the biggest management challenge that faced the department, which was created by the merger of 22 agencies. Ridge paused, allowing silence to envelop the giant ballroom, before offering his response.

"The single most important challenge we had initially was to try to convey to each and every one of my colleagues -- 180,000 strong -- that their commitment to getting their particular work, their assignment, down as well as they can -- frankly, better and better every day -- was absolutely critical to the overall mission of homeland security," Ridge replied.

Homeland security employees -- at ports, airports, on the borders and in their offices -- "have to be right over a billion times a year," Ridge said. "The terrorists only have to be right once."

He added: "I can make an argument to you today that the man or woman at the port of entry, at a border, or the TSA screener or the Coast Guardsman that just boarded a high-interest vessel -- what they do every single day operationally may be more important every single day than what I do. They need to understand the value of the work, and they need to be valued. . . .

"That was the biggest challenge, to buy into the notion that we have to demand excellence of ourselves every single day because we can afford no mistakes."

In his speech, Ridge reviewed the department's 16 months of operations for the conference, which also will feature speeches this week by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and Comptroller General David M. Walker. About 1,200 people signed up for the conference, which runs through tomorrow.

Ridge called the department "the largest IPO ever," a reference to when companies file an initial public offering of their stock. Since its creation, the department has been consolidating 22 different personnel systems, eight payroll systems, 19 financial management centers, 13 procurement operations and hundreds of computer systems, he said.

From the start, Ridge said, the department's leaders have asked rank-and-file employees for advice and listened to their concerns in public and in closed-door meetings.

Representatives of the department and the Office of Personnel Management are currently meeting in private with federal union officials on possible amendments to proposed regulations that would make far-reaching changes in the department's management systems for pay and promotions. The proposal also will probably scale back the topics that unions can bring to the bargaining table.

Ridge and Kay Coles James, the OPM director, hope to issue a final regulation by year's end.

Congress asked Ridge to consult with unions for 30 days on the proposed regulations -- a process that had been scheduled to end Friday. But homeland officials and union leaders agreed to meet again this week, with the last meeting now scheduled for tomorrow.

"Some progress is being made," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. But, she added, "there are still major issues that need to be discussed."

The outcome of the discussions could be crucial in shaping employees' perceptions of how they will be treated under the proposed personnel system.

A 2002 survey of employees, taken before they shifted into the department, found that only 35 percent held their leaders in high regard and only 28 percent believed their leaders fostered high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce, the Government Accountability Office said in a recent report.

Diary Live Today

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