T he terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted calls to reinvigorate the government and led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Hurricane Katrina underscored why leadership is critical to the department's success.
One branch of the department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, appeared confused and slow in its reaction to Katrina, which wrecked New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast. Michael D. Brown, the FEMA head, resigned after critics assailed the sluggish response.
Another part of the department, the Coast Guard, responded with courage and effective leadership. The agency's uniformed chain of command met their responsibilities -- including Capt. Bruce C. Jones, commanding officer at the Coast Guard Air Station in New Orleans.
In testimony at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee chairman, praised the Coast Guard for an "extraordinary performance" that included the rescue of 33,544 people stranded or endangered by Katrina.
The contrast in leadership capabilities between the two agencies has not gone unnoticed. "Local Coast Guard officials were able to make quick, sound decisions. Quick thinking and good judgment cannot be written into a plan," Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) said last week.
Akaka's comment came in a statement announcing the introduction of a bill that would establish minimum qualification standards for most Senate-confirmed positions in the Department of Homeland Security. Brown's resignation, Akaka said, has raised concerns "regarding the experience and qualifications of political appointees in the federal government."
The bill would require the department's most senior officials to possess at least five years of management experience, a demonstrated ability to manage large staffs and budgets, and five years of experience in a field relevant to the job they will hold, such as in customs, intelligence or disaster response. (The bill exempts the commandant of the Coast Guard because requirements for that job exist in law.)
Akaka was joined by two other Democrats on the bill -- Sens. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) and Thomas R. Carper (Del.). Because Akaka has no Republican co-sponsor, the outlook for his bill appears dim, and it will probably be faulted as partisan point scoring.
The bill's introduction comes at a time when the Bush administration intends to appoint Julie Myers to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a troubled bureau in the department. Critics have faulted Myers, a former federal prosecutor, as short on experience in immigration and customs.
Morale is a big problem at ICE, FEMA and other parts of the department, according to employees. Leadership, in particular, seems to be a concern of many.
A survey conducted by the governmen and released in June found that only 28 percent of Homeland Security employees were satisfied with the policies and practices of their senior leaders. That was below the government-wide average of 40 percent.
Although Akaka's bill may languish on the Senate's sidelines, it's clear that Akaka, who has served in Congress since 1976, wants to stir up debate over the qualifications of political appointees. The Democrat has repeatedly questioned administration policies and has spoken out against Bush administration plans to curb union rights in the federal workplace and to revamp the process used by employees to appeal major disciplinary actions.
The department, Akaka said, "needs senior officials who have experience running large organizations -- people who know which systems and chains of command work and which do not."
"Building a 21st Century Federal Workforce" will be the focus of this year's federal section conference of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources.
The conference, scheduled for Nov. 29 and 30 at George Washington University, will feature speeches by Linda M. Springer, director of the Office of Personnel Management, Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, and others.
For information, call 703-549-7100 or go to www.ipma-hr.org.
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