Vacancies raise questions, lower morale at DHS

Vacancies and personnel turnover have reached such high levels at the Homeland Security Department that they may be hampering the agency's effectiveness, according to several industry and policy experts.

Many people consider the department, created in 2003 by a merger of 22 agencies, to have been understaffed from its inception. The departure a year ago of its first secretary, Tom Ridge, led to an expected exodus of top officials and an influx of several replacements named by now-Secretary Michael Chertoff.

But the following situations are raising concerns:

  • R. David Paulison has been acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency since September, while also serving since December 2001 as administrator for the U.S. Fire Administration.

  • Jeffrey Runge, last month named acting undersecretary of science and technology, also has been chief medical officer since July.

  • Chertoff in July created a new post, assistant secretary for cybersecurity and telecommunications, but it remains unfilled. The department's top cybersecurity post has been filled in acting capacity only since September 2004.

  • The position of chief privacy officer has been vacant since September, following the departure of Nuala O'Connor Kelly. Acting Director Maureen Cooney, who was O'Connor Kelly's chief of staff, holds the post.

Muddy morale

Because of DHS' urgent mission, many people have granted the new department leeway and continue to do so, but there is talk, too, of sagging morale and constant upheavals that may be driving qualified applicants away from DHS.

"The vacancies have made a huge impact," said Matthew Farr, industry analyst with Frost and Sullivan Ltd. of San Antonio. "People there are leaving constantly. There is a constant revolving door. They have all the responsibility with hardly any of the authority they need."

One consequence of the DHS staffing turmoil is that it is difficult for members of the public to get information, even to get a phone call returned, Farr said.

It probably doesn't help that months after Hurricane Katrina, the finger-pointing is still going strong. First, there was a release of a potentially damaging video of President Bush receiving news of the crisis, followed by televised interviews with former FEMA Director Michael Brown, who resigned shortly after Katrina hit, now calling for Chertoff to be fired.

"It's gotten very tough at DHS," said Jennifer Kerber, homeland security director for the Information Technology Association of America of Arlington, Va. "There's been transition, consolidation and reorganization. You hear rumblings, but most people who go to DHS love what they are doing."

Whether any recent staff departures are related to the Katrina fallout is anyone's guess, but the vacancies and doubling up on positions at DHS are getting attention. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, recently warned of the risks of spreading staff too thin.

"While I have the utmost respect for Dr. Runge's abilities to adequately handle the responsibilities of these two positions simultaneously, it will be an enormous challenge," Thompson said in a news release after Runge's appointment as acting undersecretary of science and technology. "It is my hope that Secretary Chertoff will move expeditiously to fill either the undersecretary or the chief medical officer position to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks."

Thompson and others also have expressed concern about the post of chief privacy officer going unfilled.

"There is talk about downgrading the importance of that office," said Jim Dempsey, policy director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group in Washington.

O'Connor Kelly, the former chief privacy officer, made a point of getting involved in assessing privacy while programs were still in development and in having a say in policy, but those activities may be reduced as the position continues to be vacant, Dempsey said.

The continuing vacancy in the cybersecurity slot, which the IT industry lobbied for, poses particular problems.

"Without a doubt, the absence of an individual filling this slot almost a year later is not a good news story for the department and for our level of preparedness in the event of a large-scale cyberevent," said Paul Kurtz, director of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, an industry group advocating for effective cybersecurity policies.

"Since the president's Strategy to Secure Cyberspace was issued in February 2003, we've been running in place, and that's putting it nicely. We've actually lost ground," he said.

Some kudos

Kurtz credited the department for its recent Cyber Storm exercise and for hard work on similar projects, but he said the top cyberpriorities, such as ensuring continuity and reconstitution of the Internet following a crisis and safeguarding crisis communications and situational awareness, are languishing for lack of high-level attention.

"The entire cyberspace strategy has been on the back burner," Kurtz said.

Another worry is a possible delay in a long-awaited update of Safety Act regulations the science and technology directorate is preparing, Kerber said. The undersecretary, Charles McQueary, resigned effective March 31.

"Getting the Safety Act moving is very important. Without attention, it could easily fall beneath the radar screen," said Bruce Shirk, a partner with Washington law firm Powell and Goldstein LLP. Shirk co-chairs the firm's government and construction contracts practice, specializing in Medicaid and Medicare law contracting and related areas of law.

DHS, created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has experienced political heat many times in its three years of operation, not only for its lackluster Hurricane Katrina response but also in connection with the Madrid and London rail bombings, privacy concerns related to airport screenings, criticism from the 9/11 Commission, and the recent major port security contract granted to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates.

The department scored poorly in the September 2005 survey of federal employee morale by the Partnership for Public Service. DHS ranked second worst in employee morale of all the federal agencies, 29th of 30.

Filling hundreds of vacancies is now a critical task for FEMA as it prepares for the next hurricane season, Paulison said March 2. During the Katrina response, FEMA had about 500 vacancies, and eight of the 10 regional directors were serving in an acting capacity, according to a House Select Committee reporting on the disaster.

"The merger is still in the early stages," said P.J. Crowley, senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "All of the things creating turmoil will only handicap DHS' ability to mature as a department."

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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