Johnson pitches DHS regional commanders as part of ‘unity’ campaign

Faced with thousands of child migrants streaming across the Rio Grande in early June, President Barack Obama asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to oversee the government’s response. In turn, Johnson appointed a point man, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, to coordinate agencies’ on-the-ground efforts to address the children’s needs.

It’s that type of coordinated effort that Johnson would like to see year round. The Homeland Security secretary envisions giving his department a makeover that turns 22 separate agencies into a synchronized machine to handle a broad range of threats and has happier employees to boot.

Johnson offered glimpses of his vision in a speech Thursday before the Homeland Security and Defense Business Council.

Drawing upon his past as the Pentagon’s top lawyer, Johnson would like a clearer chain of command at DHS. He is considering installing regional directors who would control some, or all, department resources at the local level.

“When I go to McAllen Station,” Johnson said, referring to a border patrol station at the southern tip of Texas, “I’m sitting in a conference room with the border patrol, port security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Coast Guard, FEMA, and [Citizenship and Immigration Services]. The only person all those people have in common is me, and there’s nobody in between them and me in the command-and-control structure.”

A regional commander would improve coordination among the agencies, with an eye to using resources more efficiently and based on risk assessments.

In Arizona, Johnson said, an area commander controls some local DHS assets.

“The devil is going to be in the details,” he said. “But I believe we need to think about moving in that direction for a more effective pursuit of our mission.”

“We’re in the midst of reviewing and considering the concept right now,” he said, when asked when the changes might occur.

‘We are not asking components to act and behave together.’

A rethinking of how the department secures the southern border is just one part of a multipronged “unity of effort” initiative, which Johnson first described in an April memo to 15 agency leaders.

The effort entails bringing DHS component leaders together with top headquarters officials to improve communication and centralize the department’s approach to budgeting and acquisitions.

DHS officials say the initiative is not an attempt to hinder components’ abilities to make decisions in their best interests.

“It’s clearly a balance,” Johnson said. “We are not asking components to act and behave together. They are distinct cultures. The U.S. Coast Guard has a culture distinct from the U.S. Secret Service, FEMA, our immigration components.”

But, he said, “This will, I believe, help to enhance our efficiences, save taxpayer dollars, and it is particularly important to do in this environment of fiscal constraint.”

To illustrate the need for more efficiencies, Johnson said he reprogrammed $405 million from other missions to pay for the surge in resources on the southwest border after Congress failed to pass an emergency funding measure. The Obama administration is asking for an additional $1.2 billion for border security in fiscal 2015.

Morale boosters part of ‘unity of effort’ initiative

Johnson admitted morale had “not been great” in some parts of the department, which consistently ranks as one of the worst places to work in the federal government.

But he sees hopeful signs.

In recent months, the Senate has confirmed a dozen presidential appointees for key leadership positions. Two others await confirmation. They are Russell Deyo, tapped to be undersecretary for management, and Sarah Saldaña, nominated to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As part of the “unity of effort” initiative, DHS has revived some internal awards programs. It is making its hiring and promotions processes more transparent in attempts to improve morale, Johnson told the audience.

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