Kenneth Buck likes a challenge. When Homeland Security Undersecretary for Management Rafael Borras called Buck earlier this year to ask him to head a new office dedicated to integrating management efforts across the department's disparate agencies, Buck couldn't say no. He and Borras had worked well together at the Commerce Department and the General Services Administration, and the prospect of doing so again was too good to pass up, he said. In July, he became the first executive director of the Management Integration Office at the Homeland Security Department, taking on the unenviable task of getting the department off the Government Accountability Office's list of agencies most vulnerable to waste and fraud.
"It was just a great opportunity to come over and use some of the skills I had used in previous positions, as well as my academic background. It would be fun," Buck said during a recent interview in his spacious office at DHS' headquarters compound in Northwest Washington. His 30-year federal career includes senior leadership positions in acquisition and program management at GSA, Commerce, the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, and the U.S. Postal Service. During that period, he also earned two master's degrees and a doctorate in human and organizational systems.
"At some agencies, there are constraints" to what you can do, Buck said of his new assignment. "Here there seems to be a willingness to continue to build the organization" along lines compatible with management innovator W. Edwards Deming's philosophy of continuous improvement. "If you can build a case that makes sense, you're given the authority to implement," he said.
His new challenge is daunting, by any measure. The creation of Homeland Security, which brought together elements of 22 agencies in 2003, represented one of the largest federal reorganizations in history. Seven years later, DHS is the third-largest department, with more than 200,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $50 billion.
Cathleen Berrick, managing director for homeland security and justice issues at GAO, told Senate lawmakers in September that the audit agency's work on mergers and acquisitions showed that successfully transforming large organizations, even those far less complex than DHS, takes years. Berrick noted that a management integration plan department leaders developed in February lacked sufficient detail and wasn't clearly linked to DHS's overall transformation strategy.
Buck said his office is working closely with GAO to refine the integration plan, which predated his arrival at Homeland Security. Borras and Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute view that plan as a "first cut," he said. In refining it, leaders are focusing on specific steps needed to improve the personnel, processes and structures that facilitate acquisition, financial management and human capital management across the department, he said.
"The first phase is to focus on acquisition improvement," he said. "The reason is it's roughly 50 percent of the entire budget of this department." Buck refers to what he calls "big A" acquisition -- the entire cradle-to-grave process that encompasses programs from conception through life-cycle support to retirement.
A critical step will be to implement an effective process for developing program requirements that involve investment above a certain threshold. The idea is to prevent duplication among agencies and achieve greater efficiency across the department. A new joint requirements board will be composed of key department leaders, as well as senior officials from the agencies that make up Homeland Security.
"We want to support what the agencies are doing. By the same token, we have a responsibility to make sure we see efficiencies across organizational bounds," Buck said. Besides creating a joint requirements board, DHS also is working to identify the appropriate workforce for managing programs and contracting.
"This is not rocket science. It's about good management," he said. "If I do my job well, I'll be working myself out of a job. That's my goal."