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Homeland Security’s 22 agencies learning to work ‘under one roof’

Jeh Johnson arrives on Capitol Hill in 2013 before a hearing on his then-nomination to become Homeland Security chief. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

When Jeh Johnson became Homeland Security secretary in December 2013, he inherited a problem familiar to everyone who has led the sprawling department: how to make scores of government agencies work together to protect Americans.

“This department came from 22 different homes, and now it was put under one roof,’’ recalled Christian Marrone, Johnson’s chief of staff. “Being only 11 years old at the time, it was not where we wanted it to be.’’

Johnson designed a program designed to tackle DHS’s epic management challenges and better integrate its often highly independent components, which range from the Secret Service and Coast Guard to Border Patrol and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

It was called Unity of Effort, and this week, top DHS officials celebrated its one-year anniversary by highlighting what they called successes, even while acknowledging that more challenges lie ahead.

“We came from a department that has had 60-odd years of driving toward jointness, which itself is still a work in progress,’’ Marrone said.

For inspiration, Marrone and Johnson drew from their experiences at the Pentagon, where Johnson served as general counsel and Marrone worked as a special assistant to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

“The idea behind this was to bring this department together in a more unified fashion, so we are not doing things in stovepipes but doing it as a department,’’ Marrone said in an interview.

Since Johnson announced Unity of Effort in April 2014, the department has rolled out a number of initiatives, including efforts to develop a more unified approach to securing the nation’s borders.

Called the Southern Border and Approaches Campaign, the program put border-security efforts under three joint task forces consisting of various DHS agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“Before,you had components like customs and border protection and ICE who were doing great work, but within customs and border protection and ICE,’’ Marrone said. “What we’ve done is brought it all together.’’

Johnson also created a special council to better centralize Homeland Security operations such as cyber-security and equipment acquisitions throughout the department.

“A lot of our components are buying pretty much the same things. Customs and border protection buys helicopters; so does the Coast Guard,’’ Marrone said. “At the end of the day, they might be a slightly different color, but basically the requirements of what they are trying to acquire are the same.’’

Marrone — who is leading a team of senior officials overseeing Unity of Effort — had high praise for DHS’s component agencies, some of which have been resistant at times to efforts from headquarters to centralize the department.

“We never want to lose the history and culture of the organizations from which we came,’’ he said. “We embrace the U.S. customs heritage, the Secret Service heritage. These are brands that been around for well over 100 years.’’

“But as we move forward, we want to do it in a more integrated fashion,’’ he added.