The Buck Stops Here

Homeland Security's Kenneth Buck wants to take management to a new level.

In July, Kenneth Buck, a longtime career federal executive, became the Homeland Security Department's first executive director for management integration. It's a challenge made to order for a man who holds advanced degrees in acquisition management and organizational systems, and whose doctoral dissertation was on paradigm-shifting change in the public sector. The seven-year-old department's shortcomings in coordinating key functions across its component agencies landed it on the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list of agencies vulnerable to waste and fraud. Getting DHS off that list is one of Buck's top priorities. To accomplish this, he's drawing on his previous experiences in senior management positions at multiple agencies, including the Veterans Affairs, Commerce and Defense departments, and the General Services Administration. In October, Buck spoke with Government Executive Senior Correspondent Katherine McIntire Peters about his new role at Homeland Security. The following is an edited transcript.

Undersecretary for Management Rafael Borras stood up this office and asked you to take the job. What made you say yes?

I worked with Mr. Borras at the Department of Commerce and also at GSA. I was perfectly happy where I was [at VA], but when he explained the job-of course DHS is a phenomenal agency, it's got a good reputation-the opportunity to work again with him was something I couldn't say no to.

What do you mean by a phenomenal reputation? The mission for one thing. It's on the front page of the paper almost every day. I knew some people who worked here who I had a lot of respect for.

What were your expectations?

There was an energy around taking DHS to the next level, if you will. There was just a great opportunity to come over and use some of the skills I had used in previous positions as well as in my academic background.

Normally at some agencies there are constraints. Here there seems to be a willingness to continue to build the organization in such a way that if you can build a case that makes sense, you're given authority to implement. That's what this is about. I'm in my bailiwick here. This is really fun stuff. We're in this business to support the delivery of the mission. There is an openness to discuss the issues and push forward. It's a fast pace. I like that too.

What exactly is your role?

I see my role as a support role to help meet mission objectives. [DHS] did a lot of work before I got here, including the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review and the Bottom-Up Review. Now I can start going forward with the conceptual design of what needs to happen to build strategies so our programs align with our mission objectives and functional domains. The technology has caught up with what we're trying to do. There are now commercial tools in the marketplace that will allow [us to] monitor progress of programs in near real time-cost, schedule and performance of programs. We're working toward having an integrated system where we can look at that on our desktop.

What's your No. 1 goal?

It's to articulate a strategy that improves the efficiency and effectiveness of the people, processes and structures at DHS. That's it. The first phase, if you will, is to focus on acquisition improvement. The reason is it's roughly 50 percent of the entire [$50 billion annual] budget of this department. If we can improve the people, processes and structures, we've done a lot to be good stewards of the money we spend on behalf of the taxpayers.

Acquisition isn't just procurement. It's program management too. Another reason I was intrigued by DHS is most government agencies don't live the vision to have what's called big A acquisition. That means cradle-to-grave acquisition, from concept [through life-cycle support]. When we look at acquisition, it does deal with program management. Programs deliver the mission-Coast Guard cutters, Border Patrol agents, the secure fences that are being built, the unmanned aircraft. Some happen to be procured, many are handled by internal resources.

DHS aims to reduce service contractors by 3,500 by end of year, saving $1 billion. How does that fit with your plans?

We're creating a structure, the business discipline and tools that will allow for every investment-starting with the acquisition cycle-to go through a discipline to determine how it impacts spending and efficiency.

What are you doing to get off GAO's high-risk list?

Getting off that high-risk list is a huge priority. Prior to my arrival, there was a management integration plan. The current undersecretary [Borras] and the deputy secretary [Jane Holl Lute] refer to that as a first cut at trying to get to management integration. We're going at it [by focusing on] three things: acquisition, financial management and human capital management-the biggies.

If I do my job well, I'll be working myself out of a job. That's my goal.

How do you balance what's good for the department with what's best for a particular agency?

Most organizational change agents will come in and they'll say, "Smash those silos. Blow them up and start over again." I disagree wholeheartedly.

Instead of blowing them up, or changing them, there needs to be what we call perforation of the edges-meeting the components where they are, recognizing they have [their own] identities. The identities of these agencies-[Federal Emergency Management Agency], Coast Guard, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], Secret Service, etc.-are important. They've been around a long time. Our job, as leadership, is to support their success with the policies and the systems we put in place.

What's an example of that?

Rationalize the requirements development process. That's horizontal integration. We do pretty well at the department level; we all report to the same guy, that's a big step that most agencies don't have. It's at the component level we want them speaking to each other. I don't want to say it's easy, but that seems very logical to establish a formal board that will consider all requirements over certain dollar value. We want to support what [the agencies] are doing. By the same token, we have a responsibility to make sure that we see efficiencies across organizational bounds. We're ready to have our third meeting [of] the body that will compose the joint requirements board. We're shooting for 2011 to have a significant process [in place].

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