Former DHS secretary looks back on Unity of Effort, transition of power

Former Secretary Jeh Johnson opens up about his lasting efforts on the Homeland Security Department.

Morale and management are climbing high at the Homeland Security Department (DHS) and one former secretary said this may have something to do with previous and current leadership initiatives

“During the Senate confirmation process, the senators talked to me a lot about the need for management reform of the department and they were actually right. That was a good primer for what I was about to step into,”  Jeh Johnson, attorney and former DHS secretary, said on DHS 15th Anniversary. “That was pretty much the focus of mine in the three years I was in office — simply getting the department to function better, more effectively and more efficiently for the American people.”

One way Johnson was able to check the department’s process was through the annual Federal Employment Viewpoint (FEV) survey.

“I was very pleased that in the FEV survey last year, the department as a whole went up [by] three points,” Johnson said. “For a department that large with that many components, [it] was frankly no small achievement.”

Johnson said thousands of people make up that 3 percent at an agency as large as DHS. One of the components he outlined with the most improvement centered on immigration.

“Getting that across the board increase in such a large place, I think was quite an achievement,” he said. “I was determined to do it, if it killed me. I was pleased in my last year of office, we were able to get the score up.”

He said the score continues to increase in 2017.

Procurement and information technology were another two areas that the secretary made headway once appointed. The key is in using what you have to the best of your ability, according to Johnson.

The large number of senior office vacancies in the agency was also an issue when Johnson took office. He said his administration did not shine a light on the issue, however, because he intended to fill them quickly.

Two positions he was most proud of filling were undersecretary for intelligence and analysis and undersecretary for management. Both Frank Taylor and Russell Deyo were asked to come out of retirement to join his team.

“I have no idea what Frank’s political affiliation or persuasion is, but he’s a patriot and a good public servant and agreed to do it,” Johnson said.

Johnson represented Deyo when he worked with the company Johnson & Johnson. He said he also didn’t know Deyo’s political affiliation but trusted that he would be the perfect candidate due to his leadership in management of his team at the company.

“In many ways, DHS resembles Johnson & Johnson, and is a very large decentralized organization with operational components,” he said.

The former secretary said it was because of leadership and senior executives that the unity of effort initiative touched not only the main administration but also had a large impact on smaller agencies such as FEMA and the Coast Guard.

Transition of power

From new initiatives proposed to how an administration responds to natural disasters and other issues, the first response is to look at lessons learned from previous administrations.

Some worry is expected during a transition from one secretary to the next. Will the initiatives created and passed under one administration move over to the next? How will the rules and regulations change under the new leadership? Will the workforce be affected? Johnson said it was a lot smoother than he anticipated.

“Most of the federal civilian workforce and most of the military go on with their mission and their job day to day without any interaction with people at the political level who are transitioning,” he said. “And they continue to do a fine job.”

His transition was simple due to former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano already moving on to run the University of California system. He said he spoke with her on the phone when taking the position, but did not receive much insight. However, it was different with John Kelly, now White House Chief of Staff.

“He came in on a Saturday,” Johnson said. “We sat down one on one and I told him everything I thought he needed to know from the perspective of the outgoing secretary, and I knew that there were going to be enough people around after I left who could explain to him the reasons for certain decisions.”

Johnson served as DHS secretary from 2014 until 2017.

He said that while it was the experience of a lifetime, he very much enjoys being a private citizen again.

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