Do All Those “Acting” Assignments at DHS Matter?

With the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Neilsen and Under Secretary for Management Claire Grady, the Department of Homeland Security now has an Acting Secretary, Acting Deputy Secretary, Acting Under Secretary for Management, Acting Under Secretary (Science and Technology), Acting Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (while the Administrator is Acting Deputy Secretary), Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (while the Commissioner is Acting Secretary), Acting Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy, and Plans, and an Acting Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Those are only the top jobs that are filled by acting officials. There are more at middle and lower levels. Should we care that a large number of political jobs do not have permanent appointees?

In a word, yes. It is common for people outside of government to look at situations such as this and assume that it does not create problems when key jobs are filled by “acting” assignments. After all, the Department of Homeland Security has 245,000 military and civilian employees. It has more than 800 Senior Executives. DHS and other government departments and agencies should basically operate on Autopilot. Right? Before I answer that, let’s take a look at what DHS does for the American people.

The Department of Homeland Security was established by the Homeland Security Act of 2003. It brought together units from across government to focus on homeland security issues, with the intent of reducing or eliminating overlap, improving collaboration and building stronger security. Whether it has accomplished those goals is a question for another post, but regardless of your political views or opinion about DHS, it is clear that the department provides absolutely critical services that are essential to the security of everyone in this country.

Before I joined DHS as its Chief Human Capital Officer in 2009, I had an idea what DHS did, but did not know how dedicated its 200,000 civilian and 40,000 Coast Guard personnel truly are. Here are just a few of the responsibilities of DHS (from the 2019 DHS Budget in Brief). Components with acting leaders are highlighted in red.

U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is a law enforcement agency, a member of the U.S. Intelligence Community, and a first responder. The Coast Guard is the principal Federal agency responsible for maritime safety, security, and environmental stewardship in U.S. ports and inland waterways, along more than 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline, throughout the 4.5 million square miles of U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and on the high seas. In addition, the Coast Guard manages six major operational mission programs: Maritime Law Enforcement, Maritime Response, Maritime Prevention, Maritime Transportation System Management, Maritime Security Operations, and Defense Operations.

Transportation Security Administration. TSA’s mission is to protect the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce. TSA screens more than 750 million passengers per year, 1.7 billion carry-on items, and 530 million checked bags. They perform over 2,000 air carrier inspections at foreign airports.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE is responsible for enforcing U.S. immigration law by identifying, arresting, detaining, and removing illegal aliens from the U.S. ICE has over 20,000 employees deployed across all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and 50 foreign countries. The detention and removal operations get most of the press (good and bad), but most people are not aware that ICE special agents are responsible for transnational criminal investigations to protect the United States against terrorists and criminal organizations through criminal and civil enforcement of Federal laws governing border control, customs, trade, and immigration. ICE investigates immigration and customs violations, including those related to export control, human rights abuses, narcotics, weapons and contraband smuggling, financial crimes, cybercrime, human trafficking and smuggling, child exploitation, intellectual property infringements, transnational gangs, immigration benefit fraud, forced labor, and worksite enforcement.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection. CBP is responsible for securing America’s borders to protect the United States against terrorist threats and prevent the illegal entry of inadmissible persons and contraband, while facilitating lawful travel, trade, and immigration. There is a critical balance between protecting borders and ensuring that legitimate commerce can take place. The part of CBP’s mission that gets the press today is not all that they do. In FY 2017, for example, CBP seized more than 2.1 million pounds of illegal narcotics, $97 million in unreported currency, and more than 300,000 rounds of ammunition. Their Air and Marine Agents logged over 96,000 flight hours and 34,000 underway hours. They provide search, rescue and humanitarian efforts for hurricanes and other disasters. CBP processes international trade transactions worth more than $2.4 trillion, more than 28 million cargo containers, and inspects almost 400 million travelers annually.

United States Secret Service. The Secret Service is most well known for its protective mission, where it protects the President, the Vice President, their immediate families, visiting heads of state and government, and other designated individuals, and investigates threats against them. They also coordinate the security at designated National Special Security Events, such as the Super Bowl and summit meetings. The Secret Service also plays a vital role in protecting our economy by enforcing laws related to counterfeiting of obligations and securities of the United States, and financial crimes, including identity theft and computer fraud. In fact, that is the reason the Secret Service was established by President Abraham Lincoln in his last official act before going to Ford’s Theatre.

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. CISA is responsible for protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure from physical and cyber threats. This mission requires effective coordination and collaboration among a broad spectrum of government and private sector organizations.

Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA’s mission is to reduce the loss of life and property and protect the nation from all hazards, including natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other disasters through a risk-based, comprehensive emergency management system of preparedness, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation. They deliver the National Flood Insurance Program, provide grants, coordinate with state, territorial, and local governments, tribal nations, eligible private nonprofit organizations, and individuals, to reduce risk and improve resilience. FEMA deploys staff to disaster operations whenever needed, and every FEMA employee is engaged when major disasters strike. The agency also runs the U.S. Fire Administration, whose National Fire Academy trains more than 100,000 students annually.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. USCIS administers a broad range of programs through which it receives millions of immigration benefit applications and petitions. It processes more than nine million immigration benefits requests per year. Through more than 230 domestic and foreign offices, USCIS processes visa petitions, adjudicates asylum claims, issues employment authorization documents, and considers requests for lawful permanent residence and citizenship. The agency ensures the integrity of the immigration system by managing the E-Verify program, conducting fraud investigations, and interviewing and screening refugee and asylum applicants around the world. USCIS also performs naturalization ceremonies.

Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office. CWMD’s mission is to support the President’s National Security Strategy by leading the Department’s efforts to develop and enhance programs and capabilities that defend against WMD, and to combat bio-threats and pandemics.

Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers. FLETC is the nation’s largest provider of law enforcement training, with more than 68,000 law enforcement personnel trained annually. They offer a wide range of training that is the gold standard for law enforcement training.

Science and Technology Directorate. S & T’s mission is to deliver effective and innovative insight, methods, and state-of-the-art solutions for the critical needs of DHS Components and the Homeland Security Enterprise (HSE). S & T also partners with the international community and private sector as well as Federal, State, local, tribal, and territorial agencies. Just a single example is the Homemade Explosives Characterization Program, which responded to emerging threats, such as the August 2017 Etihad Airways bomb plot, by providing immediate critical data collection, physical properties of threat materials, risk mitigation and modeling, explosive detection signatures, and analysis based on current intelligence and new threat assessments. S & T’s analyses led to changes in TSA operations and screening requirements.

I will leave the legal and political questions regarding whether having acting officials is in accordance with the Vacancies Act or the U.S. Constitution to the lawyers and politicians. Let’s look at this solely from the management perspective. It is true that federal agencies survive the loss of their political appointee leaders. If they didn’t, we would be in a lot of trouble. After all, the turnover rate among political appointees in a given administration is more than 100 percent. Every appointee leaves, and some of the jobs are filled multiple times during an administration.

The problem with acting officials (even when they are great leaders) is that they are almost certain to be less effective than those who are nominated and confirmed. Once an appointee has been nominated, confirmed and appointed, that person is viewed as the permanent (relatively speaking) leader of the organization. S/he can make changes in policy or direction, advocate for higher or lower funding, move staff and hire new staff, and take other actions that are typically expected of the leader of an organization. Leading the organization is much harder for an acting official, who immediately lacks a bit of credibility because of the temporary nature of the assignment. If everything is stable, that may not be a terrible problem. But what happens if something changes? If there is a natural disaster or terrorist attack? What happens if the level of turnover starts increasing, or recruiting becomes more difficult because the organization is viewed as less than stable. A great leader who is assigned on an acting basis may hesitate to make significant changes that s/he believes would be beneficial because s/he recognizes that a more permanent leader is likely to have views of his or her own and avoiding churn in the organization is important.

All of those things might be less important in an agency whose mission does not cover life and death matters. DHS is not one of those organizations. Its mission does matter. It can result in more or less security for the American people. It is an incredibly complex department. It still struggles to deliver the level of interoperability that its creators envisioned. And it has more than 240,000 military and civilian employees whose work is vital. Those people are public servants who are not going to stop working because they have an acting agency leader. After all, they showed up for five weeks when they were not getting paid. But they also deserve stable leadership. They deserve to know that their work is valued, and that their leader is likely to be there next month, or next year. They need to know that someone will be advocating for their budget and programs who is thoroughly versed in them. Even the most talented leaders struggle to gain their footing in DHS. After serving in a leadership role in DHS, I can say with certainty that in DHS stable leadership is critical to the department’s success.

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