Transition Threat

DHS works to shore up its shrinking executive ranks during the change of administration.

Over the past year, Congress and the Homeland Security Department have been entangled in a numbers game. At issue is whether DHS has the leadership capacity to address national security, especially as the newest Cabinet agency prepares for its first presidential transition.

Between now and January 2009, the department is expected to lose 80 non-career executives, leaving career employees to fill the void. While all federal agencies will be forced to weather the changeover, many consider Homeland Security's sustainability most critical.

"DHS is not unique; there's a lot of misinformation that it is overly politicized," says Edward Stephenson, a senior project adviser for the National Academy of Public Administration in Washington. "But it does raise a lot of questions with so many key leaders leaving at the same time."

The number of high-level DHS vacancies has been a concern for a while now. In July 2007, the House Homeland Security Committee released a report that found 138 of 575 senior-level jobs were vacant as of May 1. The report said the vacancies "could lead to heightened vulnerability to terrorist attack when the new administration is installed . . . and the political appointees who now run the department exit without ensuring continuity of operations."

Homeland Security's progress in filling the executive ranks in fiscal 2007, however, could change the course. Late last year, Marta Brito Pérez, former chief human capital officer for DHS and now vice president of human resources at the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, said the department had increased its authorized number of high-level positions to 722, and of those, all but 73 were filled. "We have virtually no vacancies in the department," Pérez said in November. "I don't understand why there seems to be this perception that there are a lot of vacancies in the executive ranks."

Since then, the number has increased, Stephenson says. The department now holds 767 senior positions, and of those, 125 are vacant.

DHS and Congress have depended heavily on numbers to measure leadership capacity, says Randy Beardsworth, former assistant secretary for strategic plans. But the key is the caliber of career executives, rather than simply filling vacancies, says Beardsworth, who left the department in September 2006 and is now a partner with the consulting firm Olive, Edwards and Cooper in Washington.

More recently, he says, the department appears to be taking on the issues of transition in good faith. "I have a lot of confidence in the new deputy undersecretary, Paul Schneider," Beardsworth says. "Within the department itself, the effort to get career people entrenched in responsibility is good." The challenges of the DHS workforce in transition could delve deeper than the executive ranks, however. "The untold story is they're having a problem with attrition in certain areas of the department," Beardsworth says. "I don't think the department has cracked the nut on the job satisfaction and morale piece." In a 2006 survey of the federal workforce conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, DHS ranked at or near the bottom in leadership, performance management and job satisfaction. More specifically, Customs and Border Patrol is plagued by low morale and high turnover.

In fiscal 2007, for example, the department had planned to hire 646 additional CBP protection officers, but was forced to hire 2,327 to offset attrition. "Every port that I'm aware of is losing officers faster than they're hiring them," says Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "It's just a constant revolving door."

Stephenson argues that addressing Homeland Security's morale issues requires strong leadership, noting that CBP has far fewer executives when compared with similar agencies, such as the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration. "Down the road, CBP is going to need more executives because they're growing so much and the mission is so complex," he says.

With challenges at all levels of the workforce, Beardsworth and Stephenson say DHS needs an enlightened leader to steady the ship during the changeover in administrations. Stephenson, who is leading a project at NAPA to help Homeland Security manage the transition, says one of his team's recommendations is to establish the post of transition manager. "There's not a lot of coordination among the [DHS agencies], and we feel there needs to be an overall plan run by someone who has clout in the organization," he says.

DHS has yet to select such an official, but Beardsworth is still optimistic about the agency's ability to manage the transition. "I would give the department a B," he says. "The buzzwords will change, and the new administration will have new priorities, but you can do it in such a way to build morale and bring the career team on board."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec