Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson launched a “unity of effort” initiative 18 months ago.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson launched a “unity of effort” initiative 18 months ago. Flickr user Gage Skidmore

Homeland Security Leaders See Progress in ‘Unity of Effort’

Survey pinpoints hiring as top obstacle to uniting components and boosting morale.

Eighteen months after Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson launched a “unity of effort” initiative for his department’s far-flung components, his leaders back the concept but don’t always see its direct applicability to their organizational units, according to a survey released Monday.

Progress toward the cohesion needed by the 240,000-strong department assembled from 22 agencies in 2003 is being slowed by difficulties in hiring and retention (cited by 85 percent of respondents); tight resources (24 percent); low morale (also 24 percent); and issues with mission fit (15 percent.)

The survey by the not-for-profit Homeland Security & Defense Business Council and Grant Thornton LLP involved interviews with 67 DHS and industry leaders this summer and fall, exploring ways in which the department must continue to “clarify and operationalize broader application” of the Unity of Effort initiative. The results were unveiled Monday preceding remarks by four key DHS executives at a panel discussion.

Overall, the survey concluded that rapidly changing and complex threats complicate accomplishment of the agency’s multi-faceted mission. “There is general consensus between industry and government that risks related to cyberattacks and lone-wolf, homegrown terrorism present significant threats,” the survey report said. Management challenges will inhibit the mission, most respondents said, and “the DHS workforce will continue to encounter significant challenges through 2020. A rapidly aging workforce will cause a wave of retirements, resulting in a loss of institutional knowledge amplified by inadequate succession planning, particularly in leadership positions.”

After 12 years, DHS “is a teenager, confused and complicated,” said Russell Deyo, the undersecretary for management who joined six months ago after having retired from Johnson and Johnson, where, he acknowledges, management challenges were less complicated than those in government. “DHS being at the bottom of the federal survey in morale was one of the things that pulled me out of retirement,” Deyo said.

“There will always be a creative tension within components over whether to collaborate or operate on their own,” he said. “The Coast Guard doesn’t want to give up its 200-year-old history, just as Nutragena didn’t want to give up its independence” after being bought by Johnson and Johnson. “But it’s also a huge opportunity to find the right balance.”

Components have to understand the value of the larger mission, Deyo added, and “make it part of the culture and mindset to say, ‘Yes, I work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but I am part of DHS and that benefits me in fulfilling my mission.’ ”

Deyo, the department’s No. 3, said the primary concerns about the unity effort among components is difficulty in hiring because of sequestration, “which affects morale. We’ve got to do better.” He noted that his chief human capital officer is working with the Office of Personnel Management on security clearances to streamline the process.

Though he didn’t expect to “start with a blank page” with only 16 months left in the Obama administration, Deyo reviewed the unity initiative’s progress in financial management, facilities consolidation, coordinated budgeting and procurement. He expressed confidence that the next administration would be handed a demonstrably effective process toward unity.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mark Butt, the acting deputy commandant for operations who also chairs a key body called the Joint Requirements Council, said with the DHS secretary designed as a weak position by statute, some pushback from components resisting unity was inevitable. “But now we’re making progress as key components realize that their mission sets are not competing and there is more information sharing,” he said. The department now has a working computer lab to agree on data sets, though employees still have to return to their home agencies to access them.

In today’s budget climate, it makes no sense to have each component identify requirements and “go hat in hand to Congress” for a slice of the department’s $60 billion budget, Butt said. “Shiny things don’t interest us because we are identifying redundancies in order to fill our capability gaps.”

Butt compared DHS’ authorizing charter and the unity effort to the short-lived Articles of Confederation drafted during America’s Revolutionary War. He called for changes that would “cut across components and produce some winners and losers. Now we need a Constitution.”

James McCament, acting deputy associate director for Service Center Operations at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the components still struggle on a day-to-day basis with nuts-and-bolts implementation as differing staff “recommendations show we’re not always on the same page.” He too called on Congress to help overcome partisanship during the coming change of administrations, and stressed a need for leaders to communicate better to field offices to make them feel valued.

McCament addressed a recent Washington Post expose that showed his agency having spent more than $1 billion in 10 years to digitize applications for citizenship, but producing only one electronic form while millions of applications remain on paper. He said his agency must still operate with mostly paper records and that the digitization process is “evolutionary.” Going back to digitize 10 million past applications “is a nice thought,” he said, “but going forward, we have to do the current seven or eight million applications in parallel--we can’t stop.”

Daniel Ragsdale, the deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who chairs the executive steering committee in the unity effort, said it was important “to break down internal silos,” because employees with a law enforcement focus, for example, may not be on the same page as those in lines of business such as human resources, Freedom of Information Act compliance and resource allocation. Strategic sourcing—to “avoid reinventing the wheel”—should bring “some quick wins, but it will take some pencil sharpening to do it across the enterprise and find the sweet spot.” Ragsdale said. “We’re still young enough where we still have our differences,” he added. “A more careful way to go is to focus on long-term true requirements rather than to rush a short-term win.”

The way to improve morale, he added, is to make sure “people at the field level see the department as a benefit to the capability they have. Tackling problems jointly and delivering a solution jointly will help raise morale.”