Grading Homeland Security: The State View

“We had a tremendous tradition since 1917 and
still had problems. Secretary Ridge had to get 180,000 people across 22
agencies together—people that didn’t want to be lumped together and
people who did,” he said sympathetically.

The general media may focus on problems at
the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but the view of state
homeland security directors—across the board—is that the largest
reorganization since World War II (not to mention the creation of the
largest non-military federal agency, period) is working—and well. So
well that John Overly, director of Ohio Homeland Security, used such
adverbs as “amazed” to describe his experience, as in, “We’re just
amazed that they’re able to do this and produce results at the same
time. I don’t know their secret, but I’d sure like to find that out!”

Rebecca Jahn, who speaks for the Arizona
Office of Homeland Security, labeled DHS a “partner in the homeland
security charter.”

“Can we get better? Yeah! I hope when I’m
long gone people are saying we can still get better,” New York’s
McMahon said. “You see criticisms once in a while that someone got
through an airport with something. But in police work, you could never
take credit for the crime you prevented because you had no proof you’d
done it. But it’s not by accident that we’ve been 34 months without an
attack.”

Neither has the past year been without
incident. But as the country looks back over the third year since the
War on Terror was launched, state directors gloss over these bumps in
the road. We spoke in-depth to several state directors and e-mailed all
the others. Here’s an on-the-record glimpse of how they grade their
federal counterpart:

Responsiveness

You won’t catch mention of the most
well-known and respected person at DHS on the nightly news or even
buried in the fine print in the back of Time. But the name Josh Filler
crops up repeatedly in conversation, always followed by praise. That’s
because this director of the Office of State and Local Government
Coordination—a former attorney in private practice before fate tapped
him as director of legislative affairs for Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who
handed him responsibility for emergency operational issues after the
World Trade Center attacks—keeps phone calls and e-mails humming along
behind the scenes, attending to the essential but unglamorous work of
DHS.

When McMahon needs an answer concerning port
security, Filler cuts through the bureaucratic tangle to get it. When
Overly doesn’t know who should handle his question or comment, Filler
routes it properly. Ed Gleason, administrator of Wisconsin’s emergency
management department, reported that on several occasions DHS responded
to his queries within 30 minutes.

“That’s OK for most situations, although I
would have preferred real-time response on one or two calls,” he
admitted. But overall, even state directors polled who grade DHS lower
across the board still gave responsiveness the highest grade.

The regularly scheduled phone conferences
between the feds in DC and state directors also earned high marks.
These audio meetings come complete with an agenda, an open forum and,
occasionally, materials to be studied beforehand. Secretary Ridge often
participates, so it’s not as if he’s hiding or inaccessible, Overly
said. Overly was equally impressed that Suzanne Mencer, director of the
Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP), flew to Columbus, Ohio, to
participate in a face-to-face cabinet meeting of that state’s security
task force.

“If somebody sits there and doesn’t say
anything, that’s not DHS’ fault,” McMahon said. “They’ve been given the
open mike. So if someone is upset about something or sees a problem,
shame on them if they don’t bring it up.

“These are all positive steps that help with ripples along the way, which there will always be,” he added.

In fact, at times, Steve Lauer, chief of
Florida Domestic Security Initiatives in the Florida Department of Law
Enforcement, finds himself drowning in the information flow. If he has
any criticism on this score, it’s that the states have only a handful
of people trying to keep up with the output of hundreds at the federal
headquarters—consolidation would be most welcome in Lauer’s office.

“As more and more sections in the
headquarters come online, more information comes out. Over time, you’ll
find it will become difficult for the single state homeland security
advisor to whittle out what’s important from what’s not,” he explained.

If you define responsiveness as “willing to
listen and cooperate,” DHS continues to hold a stellar reputation. As
evidence, Lauer held up the Sunshine State’s refusal to use the
data-collection formula from ODP for strategy submissions. According to
him, Gov. Jeb Bush disagreed with what he considered an unconstrained
methodology—and Secretary Ridge didn’t force the issue.

“The best thing the Department of Homeland
Security has done is allow us to essentially have an overarching, an
oversight, of all the aspects of this mission in one place. When you
don’t see eye to eye, there’s room for conversation. DHS was not
necessarily inclined to drop the submission formula, but they did—and
that was really the key,” Lauer said enthusiastically.

Overly singled out information sharing as the
strong point in his grading assessment. The July 8 announcement of all
states’ ability to connect via the state-of-the-art Homeland Security
Operations Center (HSOC) to the nerve center for real-time threat
monitoring, domestic incident management and vertical and horizontal
sensitive information-sharing efforts in particular won his vote.

Still, not everyone believes DHS has sewn up
the final secrets to agency responsiveness. Take Tim Daniel, director
of the Office of Homeland Security in Missouri, who, while agreeing
that DHS is responsive to his inquiries, said “the relationship is very
ad hoc and lacks structure, goals and objectives.”

Effectiveness

Daniel’s assessment stems from the fact that
he sees state and local programs underutilized in programs’ design
phases, “and it leads to severe hiccups in execution.” His colleagues
in other states typically agree that DHS has been helpful, but stammer
and draw blanks when asked to provide specific examples. The bulk of
the replies resembled statements such as: “Suggestions and
recommendations have been excellent,” “You can’t change the world
overnight, but I think they’ve been making steady progress toward
getting us to where we need to be” and, “They’re still ramping up and
making great strides. They don’t have all the answers, but I’m unsure
who does.”

Part of the hedging may have been touched on
by Joe Huden, special assistant to the directorof the Washington
Military Department, which handles homeland security for Washington
state. “One of the challenges is certainly the homeland-security
advisory system being adaptable to a regional or local situation versus
a ‘general’ national change,” he said.

Overly, on the other hand, had no problem
finding his tongue. Ohio’s chief said he’s endured periods of waiting
for an answer—or hearing flat-out, “We don’t have a direct answer, but
we’ll work on it”—but he’s never brought up an issue that remained
unresolved.

“When we’re out talking to our communities on
concerns they have about homeland security, we pat our federal partners
on the back because they’ve done an outstanding job. It’s like the
hockey goalie that stops all these pucks and the only one you hear
about is the one that gets by,” Overly said. “We haven’t been attacked
in nearly three years. DHS really has done an excellent job of
preventing many of these situations from happening.”

McMahon chalked up this lower grade to the
feds’ tendency to duplicate efforts already in swing at the state
level. After all, New York stood up an office to oversee protection at
a time when “homeland security” wasn’t in the public lexicon, and it
developed initiatives such as a counterterrorism network,
counterterrorism zones and private-sector outreach.

“How to interface without duplicating or
counteracting what’s in place will have to be an ongoing dialogue,” he
noted. It boils down to benchmarking. “Why reinvent the wheel for best
practices?” McMahon asked. “It’s a good idea, if you’re going to come
out with some kind of initiative, to use a random selection to ask
input from the states on how to implement it. Now, I’m not talking
about day-to-day business. You’re never [going to] get total consensus,
and you can never poll all 50 states every time you want to do
something,” he said. “But in the routine implementation of private
sector outreach, different funding programs, there’s always room for a
sampling.” Homeland security directors, he added emphatically, are more
than willing to cooperate and share.

Funding

Surprised by this grade? The assumption is
that government is synonymous with underfunding these days; President
Bush’s supplemental budget for 2003 requested $3.5 billion extra for
DHS, with more than half that amount to fund grants for state and local
preparedness activities for equipment, training, exercises and
planning. Another $50 million was earmarked to protect major
metropolitan areas, determined by intelligence analysis.

“If you gave me 10 times as much, I could
spend itand do productive things,” Gary Winuk, chief deputy director
of California Homeland Security, said, laughing. “But everyone is
working under a budget, so my focus is getting the most bang for our
buck.”

That means the real money question should be: “Is the funding adequate?”

Yep, said Florida’s Lauer. His approach was
to pull dollars from the state as well as the federal government and
dole them out for the equipment every first responder and law
enforcement officer would need. Today, he claimed, all the state’s
cops, firefighters and emergency room personnel have been equipped and
trained to respond to an event; about one-third, or 215, of the state’s
hospitals have basic equipment to operate in a weapons of mass
destruction environment. “In hindsight, overthe last three years, if
we’d gotten more money sooner, we probably would have had a harder time
spending it,” he admitted.

Lauer was also quick to point out the fact
that ODP isn’t the only bucket of money, albeit the most publicized. In
reality, the budget contains money for medical aspects, education, law
enforcement and more. “If you don’t capture all of those things, then
it can look like what in many cases the press has made it out to be—and
some people in Congress as well. They say, ‘Hey! We’re not getting
enough money to match the bigger states.’ We don’t believe that was the
case with Florida,” he said. “Once you add all the things, there’s a
very significant amount of funding and it has been adequate to build
and sustain our strategy.”

Moving forward, the challenge is how to
sustain and replace equipment as it reaches the end of its shelf life
around 2006, he pointed out.

One director, who requested anonymity,
disagreed with the view that funding is adequate, although he
personally doesn’t hold DHS responsible. “The problem is the extreme
magnitude of the need versus what is available to address those needs,”
he stated. The current reimbursement method doesn’t hold a candle to
the block grant system he’d prefer. “We’re often criticized for not
spending our funding, but the system is such that we can only request
reimbursement quarterly,” he explained. “Only a portion of the funding
is for buying ‘things,’ which you can spend relatively rapidly. The
remainder is for planning, training and exercises—which would not be
spent in the first few months of a grant, but extend throughout the
entire performance period.”

Missouri’s Daniel echoed that sentiment. “Too
much emphasis is being placed on the amount of money and not enough on
the end state we should be trying to achieve and why that justifies a
certain level of investment of taxpayer dollars,” he said bluntly. “But
I believe DHS is doing its best and there are no ‘bad guys.’ Congress
is sometimes helpful to the point of hurting the effort.”

Meanwhile, McMahon suggested that the answer
lies in DHS’ adopting a threat-based funding structure, just as New
York does internally with the cash in its coffers. Such a strategy
would release more working dollars, he argued.

But Florida’s Lauer raised a red flag over
the concept of DHS granting dollars directly to specified areas. All it
accomplishes is to carve out high population areas and make them
beholden to the feds instead of to the governor of the state—not the
foundation for a coordinated effective strategy, he warned.

Differences aside, the fact remains that wholesale complaints were rare.

“The bottom line is that America, at all
levels of government, is stronger and more secure today than we were on
9/11,” summed up Dave Heineman, lieutenant governor and director of
homeland security for Nebraska. “The Department of Homeland Security
has only existed for a short time, and yet we are moving forward in a
very positive and productive manner. I emphasize the progress because,
if you take a step back and be objective, rather than focus on every
little detail, it is very obvious that we have made superb progress on
the homeland-security front.”

Analysis

Who in their right mind would bite the hand
that feeds them? The average American knows that comments from state
homeland security directors concerning theirfederal partner will be
filtered, sifted and diluted long before they hit a reporter’s notebook.

Yes, there are visible traces of political
posturing going on here—as evidenced by the oft-repeated statement,
which prefaced the most negative comments: “We would prefer some
anonymity so our responses don’t hurt our current relationship with
DHS.”

On the other hand, many of the homeland
security directors displayed a strong sense of camaraderie and
expressed their opinions with the toughness of pioneers. In the end,
the comments may be a tad sugarcoated, but the sentiment remains: The
states are willing to work through the bumps and even take a few lumps
for the right cause. Homeland security is that cause. HST

Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer with over 20 years of professional experience covering business and is the winner of the Writers Digest national feature article contest.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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