Homeland Security Report Card 2005: The State View

Fifty years from now, when historians pen books to sell on Amazon.com, they’ll laud the federal government for finally achieving a model of efficiency. They’ll have plenty of material to draw on during the formative years of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): the drama of switching directors only two years into its existence, the challenge of herding 22 agencies and 180,000 people under the same umbrella, the silent pressure to ward off terrorist attacks while testing new methods and technologies.
But state homeland security directors won’t need to spend their hard-earned retirement dollars on the tomes. They recognize the magnitude of this feat even as they live it.
That’s why, despite a few nods to a glitch or procedure they don’t like, state leaders continued to grade DHS highly in 2005.
Responsiveness: Better
Communications, long a target of criticism from citizens examining government departments, scored highest of all with the state directors. Last year, our sources said they liked the fact that DHS wove in their participation with joint phone calls, returned messages within a day and shared findings throughout all the state offices.
This year, directors still praised Josh Filler and his team in the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness (SLGCP, and known within DHS as “Slug-Cup”) by name. According to James McMahon, director of the New York State Office of Public Security, “They’ve become almost like a liaison office for us. Additionally, we have a 10-state Northeast consortium from Maine to Delaware that meets periodically, and they always ensure somebody from their office is there.” Filler himself sometimes makes the trip.
But McMahon noted that folks from the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP), too, drop by Albany, NY, in person for briefings on the state’s status and how the two entities can interface. He even waxed on about the cooperation he witnessed with the Secret Service team, headed by A.T. Smith, which came to his state to oversee the Republican National Convention last September. Apparently, the fact that they took the time to learn how the local scene works and brainstorm ways to coordinate impressed this old law enforcement veteran.
“DHS is willing to make some changes along the way. That’s a real positive,” he said. Case in point: The New York legislature mandates that its homeland security office conduct an energy audit, an action that clearly captured DHS’ attention, as well. The danger was that industry sites would endure three or four separate assessments if the various agencies didn’t coordinate their efforts. “We have legislation in place that’s similar to what I hear being proposed on a national level. Certainly, we’re a great test bed for DHS—they understand that and are working with us,” McMahon reported. “Again, it’s a very positive step forward.”
Several times a week, John Overly, director of Ohio Homeland Security, fields a bulletin, message or email from a department watching DHS. The state coordination office’s regular conference calls touch on programs and projects in place with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) or the Coast Guard– tidbits that really don’t apply to the Buckeyes—but Overly welcomedit all. “At least they’re keeping involved in some changes, some things being done within the department. They’ve been good as far as awareness of the big picture,” he noted.
David Halstead, chief of domestic preparedness in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, flirted with the closest hint of a criticism when he suggested that DHS should internally sort out messages so that his office of four people doesn’t have six agencies bombarding it with overlapping data and directives. “But I can’t say enough about the folks we deal with on a day-to-day basis,” he added. “Certainly, ODP is excellent. The give-and-take has been terrific. And certainly, from our side, dealing with the folks in the infrastructure protection and the homeland security operation centerhas been good. Information sharing, especially on critical issues, has been very important.
Halstead even qualified his near-criticism of DHS’ internal coordination: “It’s a large organization and we understand that,” he said by way of clarification. He pointed out that he has the federal grant manager with whom he works on his cell phone’s speed dial—but only once has he ever been diverted to his voice mail.
Halstead was not alone in his observations. The director of the California Office of Homeland Security, Matthew Bettenhausen, echoed Halstead’s suggestion that DHS enforce a single gatekeeper contact for each state. Currently, some agencies in the system bypass the state coordination office or ODP, and everyone spins his wheels trying to get to the right person. Familiarity, the states insist, breeds contentment all the way around.
“Obviously, we have regular contact and communications with DHS, and it will never be perfect, but sometimes even the great ideas and programs they announce come as a surprise to the states,” Bettenhausen observed. He pointed out that he was not advocating that a gatekeeper dictate what the programs should be, but rather make sure they’re appropriately packaged and presented to the states. “We also want to have the opportunity as they’re thinking of things to make sure they get our input,” he added.
And responsiveness is a two-way street, Halstead noted. He took the initiative to build a strong relationship by flying his team to Washington to shake hands with the ODP staff and put a face with the e-mails. “I just said, ‘I’m Dave Halstead, here’s what I do, here are the other people on my staff and what they do. What else can we do to assist you?’” he said. And then he trotted over to the operations center and repeated the meet-and-greet on the intelligence side. Back home in the Sunshine State, his staff makes a conscious effort to tailor its conversations with Washington toward suggestions on how to make a situation better.
“We try not to use those occasions for the constant gripe sessions. We’re not trying to shoot holes in the bottom of the boat,” Halstead said.
Texas director of homeland security Steve McCraw refused to point a finger when discussing his communications issues. “You’d quote me, and then I’d have a more difficult time working with my colleagues and friends in that agency,” he said bluntly. “But overall, we agree with the feedback from last year’s survey.”
Apparently, McGraw wasn’t speaking for the state offices that chose to participate in HSToday’s report card anonymously, however. Although one participant who responded anonymously did give this category a “B,” the comments throughout ranged from, “There are still times that requests seem to go into a black hole,” to, “ODP is solid. Office of State and Local Coordination is not responsive.”
Effectiveness: Better
This category didn’t draw adjectives as effusive as the responsiveness assessment but, nonetheless, states remain pleased with DHS’ efforts.
To recap, last year state homeland security officials gave the department good marks, but couldn’t explain their grades. The state directors ended up crediting the fedswith a great desire to help, even if they hadn’t done anything concrete.
This year directors are a bit more forthcoming with examples. “Twelve months ago, a lot of the efforts were starting to come to fruition, and you had your initial hiccups and problems,” Bettenhausen pointed out. “But a lot of things were put in place to help resolve them, and today we have the product of those efforts. Like with anything, it takes a while to move through the digestive system.”
So when it comes to meeting California’s needs, ODP and the state coordination office have actively worked to help Bettenhausen’s crew invest its grant funds effectively, particularly in port security. “We saw some hurdles and barriers in training and exercise—limited courses, and stuff that hadto be approved,” he said. “Now there’s more flexibility in the system. They help get the input, so you’re not reinventing the wheel and leverage resources.”
Training is a highlight for Ohio’s Overly, as well. He was invited to get involved in the Buffer Zone Protection Plan (BZPP), which allowed him to rub shoulders as a close partner with DHS and the Infrastructure Analysis Protection group. Consequently, when the BZPP identifies a critical infrastructure in the state, DHS dispatches teams to the heartland to assist the local law enforcement officials with buffer zone planning. Overly recently picked up the phone and agreed to tactical response training for Ohio’s larger cities, too.
When pressed for proof to back up his accolades, Halstead talked about boatlifts. The state had purchased a number of boats for heightened port security over the past year, and needed boatlifts to get them in and out of the water. The budget-minded folks in Pensacola wanted to know if these invoices were eligible for ODP funding—a question that stumped Halstead. But within 24 hours, ODP came back with the answer: Yes.
The anonymous respondents were a bit more vague in their reasoning, although they still agreed with the overall grade. For instance, one Southern state director dropped last year’s grade of B down to a B-, saying simply: “too much conflicting guidance.” Another Midwest state director, who also gave a “B” in this category, claimed that “information on grants has been good. There is a continued need for refinement and improvement of security products.”
Funding: Same
Rewind the tape: In 2004, the consensus of directors was that, while states always could find more uses for money, what they received was nothing to sneeze at. This year, with DHS’ new emphasis on risk-based formulas, directors like New York’s McMahon naturally were pleased. He sees well over $300 million flooding into his state from grant money now, and dispersing that sum from border to border on a risk-based assessment has worked well for him for the past two years.
Overly of Ohio shared that contentment, mainly because its large cities translate into four Urban Areas Security Initiatives. “Compared to other states, Ohio has been fortunate in funding,” he stated.
“We appreciate everything we’ve got. We certainly think it’s the federal government’s responsibility to assist the states in maintaining a certain level of preparedness for terrorism,” Halstead added to the chorus. “And coming from a fire service background, where I wasn’t used to any federal funding at all, I have no complaints about it.”
But “no complaints” doesn’t mean no concerns. Splitting everything into separate pots of money—UASI grants, Metropolitan Medical Response System Grants, Emergency Management Performance Grants—can drive a state director crazy.
“Through the rest of the year came the transit grant, the intercity bus grant, the equipment reuse program, the BZPP money, the ports grant,” Halstead said, ticking them off on his fingers. “We appreciate all the funds, but they each come with different timelines, different criteria, and trying to build one cohesive strategy for the state is kind of tough underthose circumstances.”
McMahon—who would prefer to see this money distributed on a cash advance system—doesn’t even lay the blame for this issue at DHS’ doorstep. Instead, he advocated changing the 1990 Cash Management Improvement Act.
Meanwhile, Bettenhausen wanted to make sure DHS has a long-term funding view so the first responders know they have something to count on. After all, the funding stream needs to support both purchases and continuous training dollars. “Once you blanket the state with detection equipment and interoperability issues, for instance, you’re not done. By the time you finish, you need to start over with your training because of retirements and new hires,” he pointed out. And with 163,707 square miles of California to cover, it’s not surprising that he was the one to bring up this topic.
New directions
Finally, there’s the elephant in the room whenever someone comments on DHS these days: Exactly how will DHS’ new head honcho, Secretary Michael Chertoff, who officially took the reins on Feb. 15, alter the landscape? Guys like McCraw in Texas, who saw Chertoff in action at the Department of Justice, like his no-nonsense, get-things-done attitude and expressed willingness to follow the new commander. “I have great confidence in the leadership in place right now,” McCraw repeated, just in case there was any doubt it. “If he chooses to make changes, he’ll make the appropriate changes at the right time.”
To date, Chertoff has taken the same action that McMahon would have had he been in the same position. New York’s director was impressed by the fact that the new boss showed up on the streets of the Big Apple, talking to law enforcement personnel to find out what they needed on the transit system. More importantly, he enjoyed being invited to Washington to state his opinion, focus-group style, on DHS’ decisions and directions. “Undersecretary Michael Jackson spent the last two hours of the day in there with us,” he recalled. “That and that alone shows the direction the secretary is headed in. It was the right thing to do, and I’ll be very interested in seeing the outcome.”
Ohio’s director first met Chertoff when the newly appointed leader addressed a National Governor’s Association meeting in early June. “I was impressed with just the vision,” Overly recalled. “He seems to have learned so much in a short time, and that impressed me most. It’s such a huge puzzle and there’s a lot to keep track of. But he was right on top of it.”
That’s support a secretary can build on.
Analysis
When asked to talk about his state’s relationship with DHS, Texas’ McCraw dispensed with the usual political correctness. Yes, he sincerely believes Josh Filler is a can-do individual. Yes, the ratings last year are still accurate. But he did draw a line: “I don’t think we need to canonize them at this point,” he said. “But in terms of responsiveness, effectiveness questions, they’ll get high marks. Do we always get what we want? No. Do we think other variables like the border should be considered, made a higher priority? Yes. But do we get a fair shake to provide our input? Yes. Do we think they’re listening to us? Yes.”
When even a straight-shooting Texan phrases it like that, chances are good other state directors aren’t merely whitewashing their opinions. In fact, state directors who drew the veil of anonymity didn’t necessarily have a dark, ugly secret to hide. The worst grade DHS received from this angle was a “C” in funding; the rest clocked in with “B”s and “B minuses.”

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