DHS turnover at the top shows importance of career people

As turmoil hits the DHS appointee ranks, it's a perfect time for the Senior Executive Service to shine.

This is why you need strong career staff: No secretary, no deputy secretary, no chief financial officer, no heads at three major bureaus. That, folks, is the state of the Department of Homeland Security.

Plus, you’ve got the Mexican border, a scene of the most intense and controversial activity facing the nation. It’s short 7,000 officers that Congress has agreed to fund.

A strong Senior Executive Service member has to be like an opera star continuing the aria when the backdrop behind her falls over. Big distraction, but the show must go on.

Homeland Security isn’t collapsing. In fact, by coincidence, a Government Accountability Office follow-up study detailed progress the agency has made towards disentangling from the GAO’s High Risk List. Director Chris Currie said, sure, it’s been 16 years but the department is moving in the right direction. Acquisition and financial management are better, but those are the two main anchors keeping DHS on the list.

Last week Customs and Border Protection officials terminated — for convenience — a contract with Accenture Federal Services. Accenture was trying to help CBP hire more officers. Yet they’re 7,000 behind. Accenture apparently wasn’t let go for performance. It never got, say, a cure letter. From what we can tell externally, CBP has decided to try some other tack. Currie said this is a sign of maturity in contract and acquisition management — knowing when to cut bait.

But my hunch, with which Currie agreed, is that all of the vacancies and distraction caused somehow by the blooming fire on the border could stall the managerial progress. It must also be unnerving to employees.

Hours after the termination, the CBP commissioner ascended to acting secretary. Kevin McAleenan wasn’t born yesterday. But he does face a gigantic political situation, and he’s nominally overseeing all the components. So he won’t have time to do much soothing and hand-holding.

The bulk of the department operates normally. The Transportation Safety Administration is doing its thing at airports.  Last week it posted a gallery of pistols agents confiscated — who knew guns came in purple? FEMA celebrated its 40th anniversary a week ago, while the Coast Guard recently commissioned the brand new cutter Forrest Rednour, now patrolling the West Coast off Los Angeles. Just today an east coast Jayhawk helicopter crew saved three people from a sunken fishing charter off the coast of Clearwater, Florida. Life goes on.

Politicos deal with politicians while the career civil servants do the nation’s work. Still, any management observer will understand the potential for productivity and morale losses when intrigue and sudden comings and goings at the top occur. Thus the need for career management — the DHS Senior Executive Service and the GS-13s, -14s, and -15s — to show resolve, normalcy, and focus on the mission, not on the revolving door.

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