The Homeland Security Department faces formidable challenges that, if not properly addressed, will escalate intergovernmental fragmentation, confusion and ineffectiveness, a panel of government experts said Thursday.
The federal government must walk a fine line between dealing with homeland security challenges and promoting interagency coordination, while not taking power away from state and local governments and violating civil rights, speakers said during a conference sponsored by the National Academy of Public Administration and Johns Hopkins University.
"Homeland security is going to deeply affect intergovernmental relations," said Enid Beaumont, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for the Study of American Government. "This program is going to test the intergovernmental system as none has ever done before."
In a paper prepared for the conference, Beaumont said the challenges of homeland security require building trust among agencies; flexible funding practices, especially with regard to block grants for states; and keeping first-responders trained and ready. However, she said federal managers too often get caught in turf battles and do not inspire collaborative environments.
"Most federal managers are ill-equipped to participate in collaborative processes," she wrote. "They are used to being in charge rather than being a member of an intergovernmental group that's developing a group product-such as a homeland security strategy that has integrated federal, state, local and nongovernmental elements."
Fred Kaiser, a specialist in American government with the Congressional Research Service, said the speed at which DHS was created and is moving is leading to "policy fragmentation and agency disaggregation." For example, he noted that some agencies, such as the Secret Service, were transferred in whole to DHS while other agencies were divided up, with some parts remaining in one department and other parts transferred to DHS. He said the government has yet to fully assess and understand the impact that those moves are having.
Kaiser believes the success of homeland security depends on interagency coordination among the agencies within DHS; between DHS and other federal agencies; between all agencies of the federal government and state and local governments; and between the federal government and foreign governments.
But Beaumont cautioned state and local governments to guard against conceding too much power to the federal government in exchange for federal dollars. She fears state and local governments are losing their sovereignty and becoming an extension of the federal government as they compete for grants to meet homeland security challenges.
"In these times of scarce funding at all levels of government, will the state and local governments be tempted to sell their souls for new homeland security money that seems to be the only source of new federal funding on the horizon?" she asked. "These are serious worries that deserve attention here."
She said three factors are driving the movement of power toward the federal government: federal mandates, the policy of preemption and the scarcity of funds. For example, when DHS issues alerts, state and local governments have to spend money to comply, such as paying overtime. This situation is occurring at a time of changes in the federal tax system, a decline in the value of stocks and bonds and a sluggish economy.
"Drop by drop, the power to make decisions is continuously moving toward Washington and away from state and local governments," Beaumont said.
The speakers agreed that the challenges of homeland security present a tremendous opportunity to forge a new environment of intergovernmental coordination and collaboration, but they said the road to success is rife with challenges that threaten to derail progress.
"If we can do it this time, however, we might be able to transform the whole intergovernmental management system by example," Beaumont wrote. "If we can't, we may just end up with some essential quick fixes that will allow Homeland Security to limp along with a fragmented and burdensome system similar to most of the other federal aid programs, and may make no difference at all in the larger system."