The Department of Homeland Security is no stranger to leadership changes at the very top.
Since the department’s creation in 2003, the department has had six different secretaries. Turnover at the top has been especially prevalent at the deputy secretary and undersecretary for management positions. DHS has had a total of seven deputy secretaries and six undersecretaries for management.
“DHS has been in a state of flux since its creation,” one respondent said.
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But turnover at the deputy secretary and undersecretary for management positions is notable, because these positions deal with the daily, operational activities that impact DHS’ workforce of 230,000 employees.
The undersecretary for management, in particular, focuses on a wide variety of topics that cut across DHS’ 22 component agencies, including procurement, human capital, IT and financial management issues.
“The department and the leaders, they need the time and the space to be able to concentrate on these issues to make sure that the DHS enterprise is operating at its optimal state,” Rafael Borras, a former undersecretary for management during the Obama administration, said. “You cannot let the business of homeland security begin to drag or become unfocused or unmotivated because of events that occur in the political sphere. Hopefully the leadership recognizes that and are paying attention to that and reinforcing the message that in spite of a period of transition, it’s business as usual. The department needs to function and function at a high level.”
The undersecretary for management also plays a particular role in communicating DHS’ priorities to other stakeholders and agencies, such as Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.
“The undersecretary for management also has a unique relationship with Congress, because the Congress looks at the undersecretary for management as a non political, strong voice for good government and good management,” Borras said. “They require the undersecretary for management to certify a lot of activities in the department to make sure that they’re done in compliance and assurance with regulations.”
The Government Accountability Office recently praised DHS for the progress it’s made to address about 30 areas on the High-Risk List. Chris Currie, director of GAO’s homeland security and justice team, said no other department had been as committed to addressing high-risk issues as DHS.
He attributed DHS’ recent success to the commitment of its top leadership. But progress on those management issues could stall without dedicated leadership.
DHS employees themselves agreed.
“The department needs permanent leaders,” another DHS survey respondent said. “No one in an ‘acting’ role feels comfortable making long-term plans or commitments. The lights stay on when agency or departmental leadership is in transition, but time and progress are lost on many fronts.”
Nicole Ogrysko is a reporter for Federal News Network focusing on the federal workforce and federal pay and benefits.