This month the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) marked the 15th anniversary of its establishment. This event is a cause for both recognition and deep reflection. Although our adversaries have largely been deterred, the threats facing the homeland seem to be ever-expanding beyond our physical borders, fought in cyberspace and foreign lands. The demand for services, whether disaster relief or immigration benefits, is growing exponentially.
Before considering the broadest perspective on the Homeland mission – which encompasses local, state, tribal, territorial, federal, and so many other stakeholders – we must ask the following: After 15 years and over $700 billion invested in people, systems, and services through DHS-related appropriations, are we doing the best with the investments that have and are being made?
I will readily admit that I am an unapologetic mission holder. I was part of the Day One stand-up of the Department. I experienced firsthand the challenges of Secret Service’s transition from Treasury into the newly formed Department. DHS is in my blood. I am one of more than 250,000 federal employees – agents, officers, professionals, specialists, and administrators – that do or have called DHS home. Let’s not forget the reservists, volunteers, contractors, and industry advocacy groups who support the daily mission: the innumerable domestic and foreign partner agencies, the nonprofits that support our workforce and families while our loved ones are on the front lines.
Acquiring Mission Accountability
There are many aspects on which I could reflect, but for this discussion I would like to focus on a management area of DHS that can be most improved with the greatest and most immediate impact. With more than $18 billion in annual programmatic investments, acquisition programs constitute more than a third of the DHS budget. These programs ensure that those who carry out the Homeland Security mission are equipped with the right tools to operate effectively within a rapidly evolving environment. However, DHS’s track record for program delivery includes some notable, unsuccessful programs. Our first reaction to these failures is to assign an accountable party, lay blame, improve, then start all over again.
Let’s talk about a new way to view accountability. A common misconception about accountability is that the responsible party comes down to a single person. Often, this burden is thrown on the shoulders of the program manager. If the pedigree of these programs were so simple, we would rid ourselves of many perennial risks that are inherent in our investments. Let me challenge the community to take a much broader view.
Multiplication by Addition
Accountability is about a collection of dedicated leaders in the workforce with a shared commitment to the same goal. Each will lead from his or her position – whether a senior executive or project manager. The acquisition guidance of a contracting officer should be accountable to the program manager. The lead cyber solutions of an information security specialist should be accountable to the program manager. The workforce staffing and talent management should be accountable to the program manager. Even policy and legislative affairs should be accountable to the program manager. Most critically, the mission owner should be accountable to the program manager to produce verifiable requirements. Accountability is about a set of structures, authorities, and resources that create healthy boundaries and responsibilities for the stakeholders – driving prioritization and expected mission outcomes.
To be clear, I am not advocating for the program manager to become the center of the Homeland universe. That honor will and should always be bestowed on the operator in the field. With similar clarity, this broader view of accountability is not to make those accountable diffuse and unassignable. On the contrary, this a call for more specific and targeted obligations to all of the investment’s stakeholders. As our Homeland Security leadership prioritizes precious federal resources, we must ensure successful delivery to the mission.
As a first executive director of the Office of Program Accountability and Risk Management, I had the good fortune to work with our component acquisition executives to redefine the scope of accountability for investments at the Department of Homeland Security. My common refrain is that “programs often end the way that they begin.” The program that starts poorly will end poorly. The program that starts well will end well. Yet, a dearth of sufficiently-skilled staff hobbles progress while key mission and programmatic roles go unaddressed.
It is clear that DHS leadership is committed to strengthening the capabilities and requirements of the development process. Their ongoing commitment to drive departmental integration and joint requirements was on full display during the last major multi-mission response. The best evidence is the juxtaposition of the hurricanes that recently ravaged my hometown of Houston versus the hard lessons that were learned from Katrina. DHS has come a long way.
Not People First… First, People
The bottom line is that this accountability challenge comes down to one core issue: people. More stakeholders need to understand their broader responsibility to those who are maturing the mission through delivery. The same also need to be held accountable. But if roles are not filled, no degree of accountability will matter to a vacant position. Every vacant seat represents a future leader who is not being educated, cultivated, and matured to ensure the future of the Department.
Let us embrace a more holistic understanding of accountability and continue the maturation of the Homeland enterprise. We must do our best because we will never tire of the safety and security that the Department of Homeland Security provides while we fulfill the American dream. God bless the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security.