Foiled by Fences

Homeland Security's border bureaus struggle to blend people, systems and cultures.

By late May, Terry Sourbeer had seen enough. For more than two months, Sourbeer, a manager in a Miami office of the Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, had been trying to renew a contract for two photocopiers. But because of pushback from ICE's Dallas procurement office-redo the application; fill out another form-her simple task became a bureaucratic nightmare. After Dallas asked for yet more paperwork, Sourbeer snapped. "That's when I drew the line," she wrote in an exasperated letter to Soraya Correa, ICE's director of procurement. "Not one more ridiculous piece of paper."

For employees at the old Immigration and Naturalization Service regional center in Laguna Niguel, Calif., now part of DHS, the breaking point came last August, when they got wind of a plan to close their office. "We found out from panic-stricken support staff who had been told, unofficially, that they should be looking for other positions," recalls one employee. Some Border Patrol employees were sent to Arizona. INS administrative workers stayed in Laguna Niguel, but were transferred to ICE; then, in late January, some employees were shifted again, this time to the DHS Customs and Border Protection bureau.

Conventional wisdom has it that government reorganizations are painful, chaotic affairs. In fact, for agencies that transferred to Homeland Security intact, such as the Coast Guard and Secret Service, the reorganization has been relatively smooth. Janet Hale, the department's undersecretary for management, can point to several achievements: The department has consolidated 22 human resources systems into seven, opened its books to financial auditors and sharply reduced its reliance on outside agencies for basic services. From parking to procurement, Hale says, Homeland Security is now largely self-sufficient.

But for workers in certain Homeland Security agencies-ICE, CBP and the Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau-the reorganization has brought no shortage of administrative headaches. ICE agents have had their fleet cards, which are used to pay for fuel and vehicle maintenance and repair, declined at the gas pump. CIS has been under a hiring freeze all year. All three agencies are jockeying over funding; the department has determined that CBP and CIS owe ICE $550 million.

Workers have shared their frustrations with reporters and Congress. In June, after hearing from several ICE employees, Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, warned the investigative agency was in danger of breaking congressionally set budget limits, a violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act. Underlying problems at the agencies began a year before. Created to bring mission clarity to the government's border security efforts, ICE and CBP were formed in a shotgun marriage of officers from six agencies, including INS and the Customs Service, which brought distinct cultures and administrative traditions with them.

ICE, CBP and CIS received budgets for fiscal 2004 before officials had decided where to put thousands of administrative staff from INS and Customs. Once these workers were divvied up, budget experts had to go back and find the dollars to pay for them-a painstaking process that at times forced agencies to give up funding.

On top of this, the three agencies, with Hale's blessing, have launched an ambitious program to provide administrative support to each other. For example, ICE provides financial services for CIS, while CBP handles fleet management for ICE and CIS. Known as the tri-bureau shared services initiative, the effort is the kind of administrative reform officials hope to expand departmentwide. "At some point, I would assume there would only be one shared service office for all of [Homeland Security]," says Robert Smith, CBP's assistant commissioner for human resources management, who also oversees personnel work for CIS and ICE under the program.

With so much churn, it's no surprise that front-line officers, who just want to be paid on time and occasionally use the photocopier, feel besieged. "If you're one of these guys, what are you going to do?" asks a CIS manager who requested anonymity. "You're not going to blame change. You don't blame the [Bush] administration for poor planning. You'll blame the easiest thing you can: the financial system, or the budget process."

Or, you just blame the INS.

Culture Clash

On March 1, 2003, the Customs Service was disbanded; INS was abolished by Congress in the 2002 Homeland Security Act. But administratively, both agencies live on. CBP uses Customs' systems, while ICE and CIS inherited many systems from INS. For the 3,500 Customs agents who came to ICE, switching to paper-intensive INS systems seemed like a giant step backwards. "I came from an agency that accounted for every penny . . . and everything was integrated and automated," states a form letter circulated by veteran Customs agents in ICE. "Now, I have six different passwords, everything is paper . . . and automation has not been invented evidently."

ICE officials dispute this characterization. They note that Customs used an old mainframe financial system, which is still in use at CBP, while INS had an off-the-shelf application, known as the Federal Financial Management System. ICE chose to use that system because it could easily be upgraded, according to a July 9 letter from ICE Assistant Secretary Michael Garcia to Turner.

But the Customs critique contains kernels of truth. INS never integrated the financial system with its procurement system, meaning workers had to manually debit FFMS after they made a purchase, a practice followed today at ICE. And because the two systems are not electronically linked, procurements hinge on paper transfers. Sourbeer had her meltdown in the midst of an extended paper war with Dallas, an episode that prompted an intervention from ICE procurement chief Correa. "Our procurement staff should sit down with the operators to help them make any changes that need to be made to a [purchase] order," says Correa. "That's what we're here for."

By tradition, INS administrative centers in Dallas, Laguna Niguel and Burlington, Vt., operated with minimal direction from Washington. Personnel specialists got to know front-line officers, and made their own contacts at the Office of Personnel Management. At Customs, by contrast, authority was centralized in Washington, as it is today in CBP. Specialists shifted to CBP say headquarters now keeps them on a tight leash. "We have a slew of GS-12 staffing personnel here who are reduced to typing up [job] announcements, which are written to a template provided by headquarters," says a worker at one center.

Customs and INS even dismantled themselves differently. When it came time to split Customs, officials simply sent their agents and air and marine officers to ICE. But the overhead dollars tied to these programs stayed at Customs-CBP, which had centralized budgets for human resources, training and other administrative functions. "They forgot to cut out the [firearms] support, the training, the financial services, because all that money went to an assistant commissioner at headquarters who was supposed to provide those services," says the CIS manager. As a result, ICE was underfunded.

Other back-office systems weren't compatible. "Customs' IT infrastructure was very different from our IT infrastructure," says an INS veteran now with ICE. "You've got to bust through firewalls, your Web browsers have to be integrated. It's been an immense challenge. When the planners of DHS laid out the plan, I'm not sure how deeply they dug on these issues."

In the summer of 2003, these challenges were dropped in the laps of managers at the three agencies and in Hale's office. Their response is a road map to future management reforms at Homeland Security.

Sharing Services

The tri-bureau shared services plan began taking shape in July 2003, when Hale's office convened meetings with managers from the three agencies. The idea of shared services was popular within Hale's inner circle. Greg Rothwell, the department's chief procurement officer, helped run the Internal Revenue Service's shared services system, and Congress endorsed the approach as well.

Shared services helped solve an immediate problem; it gave the department a way to support three agencies-ICE, CBP and CIS-with the administrative staff from two-Customs and INS. But it came at a time when the agencies already were trying to hash out organizational details muddied by the 2004 budget allocations. As Garcia wrote Turner, the 2004 budget "does not accurately reflect where certain functions or services ultimately resided within the department."

Details of the budget problem remain murky. In late March, The Wall Street Journal reported that ICE and CBP had imposed a hiring freeze due to a potential $1.2 billion budget shortfall. But department officials dispute that figure. "It was never even close to that amount," says an official in Hale's office. What's clear is the budget exercise became a cleaver to finish the job of splitting INS and Customs.

With budgets at stake, no issue was too small for the bargaining table. CBP locked horns with ICE's detention and removal office over who should pay for meals given to travelers detained at airports. Andrew Maner, Homeland Security's chief financial officer, helped resolve the most intractable disputes, including ICE's bid to reclaim $550 million from CBP and CIS, a months-long battle ICE eventually won. "Sure, everyone thought they deserved more money. That's human nature," says the official in Hale's office. "We had to click through item by item and make decisions."

Meanwhile, the three agencies were brokering shared services arrangements, which entailed more swapping of personnel. When CBP took over human re-sources management for ICE and CIS, it absorbed personnel staffers in Laguna Niguel, Dallas and Burlington. Staffers at the old INS administrative centers were regrouped along functional lines, answerable to Washington (CBP's Smith now directs a battalion of 600 workers scattered across 30 locations).

At the centers, the restructuring led to surreal episodes. In Laguna Niguel, INS personnel specialists and training staff had worked side by side for years. Now, personnel staff answer to CBP, while trainers work for ICE. They still share the same coffee pot, but they work for different agencies. When Laguna Niguel's personnel staff shifted to CBP in January, the office's contract janitors questioned whether they should continue to clean CBP cubicles, as their contract was with ICE.

And despite their CBP affiliations, these employees also handle personnel work for ICE; that is the whole point of shared services. But it requires some cultural adjustments. As a CBP worker sees it, "I have to keep two different time sheets to track time that I spend per day on ICE versus CBP work. I try to make things bearable for the timekeeper, who I fear will have a stroke every time and attendance day."

ICE, CBP and CIS employees first learned of shared services in an e-mail sent Sept. 10, 2003; some assumed it was a workforce reduction scheme, despite assurances to the contrary from headquarters. A number of officials now regret that employees were not told more. "The field was kept in the dark on a lot of things taking place here at headquarters," says an ICE official.

Difficulties aside, officials agree shared services makes good business sense. Smith's 600 workers provide personnel support for 75,000 employees at the three agencies. "That's a fantastic servicing ratio," he says. Shared services also became a vehicle to support new Homeland Security units. ICE provides financial services for the department's headquarters, as well as to CIS and itself.

Hale's office wants the agencies to share more services; officials are studying whether one agency could provide budget support for the others. And there is talk of extending reforms to other agencies in the department under plans variously known as "organizational integration," "functional integration," or "tri-bureau grande," as some wits refer to it. These proposals raise difficult organizational questions and have sparked an intense debate inside the department. The discussion was touched off by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in a memorandum to senior officials on Sept. 12, 2003: "We cannot wait to develop plans to implement the most critical organizational task: to consolidate support functions in each of the separate units into integrated, departmentwide systems."

The Great Debate

Following Ridge's memo, Hale moved quickly to flesh out the details of how administrative consolidation could work. Several officials say she proposed giving her office direct authority over agencies' administrative support shops. Practically speaking, the department's chief information officer would gain operational control over the information technology offices.

Hale's proposal addresses a concern raised by many in Congress, as well as the department's inspector general: the weakness of the CIO, chief procurement officer and other management "chiefs" within the Homeland Security hierarchy. "The CIO has no authority over the more senior component directors that he is supposed to be overseeing in terms of IT," concluded the inspector general in an Aug. 3 report. Currently, the CIO has to use "informal channels" to get things done, including relying on personal contacts within the agencies, the report found.

The House Homeland Security Committee has weighed elevating the CIO and other chiefs in the department so they report directly to the deputy secretary, an idea that would eliminate Hale's job. In an interview, Hale defends her position, saying the department needs a senior official solely focused on management. "It's easy for me to see day in and day out the organizational efficiencies that come about, because I'm not off at a National Security Council briefing trying to figure out the bad guys," she says. "I'm sitting at the conference table with the CFO, CIO, saying, 'Have you guys all coordinated this?' " Asked about the department's plans for administrative consolidation, Hale says, "We are looking at lots of options, but I don't want to talk about internal deliberations."

Some agency officials resist the idea of giving Hale's office control over their administrative staff and possibly ceding their administrative budgets. "It's a hugely controversial topic here," says a senior homeland security official. "Can you imagine an agency head that didn't have any control over the hiring process for his agency?" But others like the idea. The department's CIO Council has crafted a plan to centralize IT services under the chief information officer, according to the IG report. The report had kind words for Hale's plan, saying it would "help eliminate existing organizational stovepipes and help build a department culture that is vital to the long-term health of the agency."

When discussing reorganization, DHS officials often use business metaphors; Hale says it is like managing a corporate merger, a divestiture, an acquisition, and a startup, all at once. The private sector parallel might explain why the department's reforms have hit some bumps. In the late 1990s, consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble spent eight months designing a shared services system before attempting to launch it. But Homeland Security officials say they didn't have that kind of time. "We never had the luxury to do that kind of planning," says the CIS manager. "We had no choice but to do this now."

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