An insider's guide to DHS

A conversation with George Foresman, undersecretary for preparedness

No one has defined success for DHS: It changes based on who has the microphone. - George Foresman

Rick Steele

Although Secretary Michael Chertoff's first major reorganization of the Homeland Security Department began with great fanfare, it ended on a much quieter note. Just as his changes were set to go into effect, Hurricane Katrina struck and became the department's most urgent priority for many months.

Nonetheless, one of the widely recognized highlights of the DHS restructuring was the appointment of George Foresman as undersecretary for preparedness in October 2005. Formerly senior adviser to Virginia's governor for preparedness and homeland security, Foresman, 45, has more than two decades of experience in emergency preparedness and response.

Praised by Chertoff as an "exceptional professional who has shown a steadfast commitment to the ideals of leadership by example," Foresman oversaw the distribution of more than $3 billion to state and local agencies for counterterrorism equipment, training and planning. He also performed the first national assessments of preparedness and the interoperability of first-responder communications, and he served as co-chairman of the department's effort to update the National Response Plan.

In the aftermath of Katrina, Congress demanded that DHS strengthen the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As a result, DHS' preparedness directorate morphed into a new form, and Foresman briefly served as undersecretary for national protection and programs. He resigned that position in March.

Foresman recently spoke with Washington Technology staff writer Alice Lipowicz about his experiences as a senior official at DHS and his views on the department's use of information technology.

Q: There has been a lot of discussion about the IT aspects of homeland security. What is your opinion about how IT is used within the department?

Foresman: DHS has evolved beyond thinking of homeland security as gates, guards and guns. The idea is to use technology to manage risk.

One of the lessons of [the 2001 terrorist attacks] was a lot of folks said we need new stuff to help us become more interoperable, flexible and user-friendly and to allow information sharing. It is about developing capacity to harness existing systems to support managing risks in the 21st century. It's not about creating giant new databases; it is about harnessing technology to access existing systems.

Q: Considering all the criticisms of DHS ? including high turnover and vacancy rates, program delays and alleged mismanagement ? how did you feel about working in a senior management position at DHS?

Foresman: At an event last September, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines asked a roomful of executives, "Who among you would like to be in charge of a merger of 21 agencies with 180,000 employees, 22 different systems and a board of directors of 535 members of Congress?" No one raised a hand.

No one has defined success for DHS: It changes based on who has the microphone. One of the biggest challenges is defining whom DHS is serving and who is setting strategies and direction.

The Defense Department can tell you its strategy for 10 years ahead. DHS does not have that luxury yet. There needs to be a better balance between appropriate oversight and not getting caught up in the last event and playing "gotcha."

Q: Are there fundamental misunderstandings about homeland security that are affecting how it is perceived?

Foresman: Homeland security is evolving, and there is a lack of definition as to what it is. That extends to hiring experts in homeland security. There is no clear definition of what constitutes core competencies.

They say one dog year is like seven human years. Well, one homeland security year is like 15 years. There has been an exponential increase in the understanding of the challenges and interrelationships in homeland security.

Q: All in all, how was your experience at DHS?

Foresman: It was a fabulous experience. Despite the ups and downs, I think we were able to make measurable advances in what is good for America.

Q: Do you have any advice for federal contractors who want to work with DHS?

Foresman: A lot of folks are trying to get in to see senior [political appointees], but their time might be better spent in working with senior-level career folks who will be developing and implementing the systems.

People have to realize that in 17 months there will be a new team coming in. So they need to focus on the long term.

The department continues to be in a crisis mode, so you have to realize that and take nothing for granted. Make sure you write your plans in plain language and take the time to clarify the business processes.

I've sat through lots of briefings, and I truly believe in the power of harnessing the innovations of the private sector and government. But I don't know how many times people missed telling me what their product or service is and what it can do.

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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