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Reorganizing is NOT the Solution for
 Homeland Security

John R. Brinkerhoff

    "We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I learned later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganization, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization."         (Petronius Arbiter 210 BC)

Reorganization is not a substitute for coordinated action in the Homeland Security Program. Reorganization is often considered a panacea for prior poor performance, and in some cases it might indeed be a useful remedy for perceived deficiencies. In this case, however, reorganization is likely to cause more grief than pleasure. There are at least three reasons why the proposed formation of new Department of Homeland Security is not a good idea:

    • In the short term, the turbulence associated with a reorganization of this type will cause enough friction to reduce for several years the ability of these agencies to do jobs that they are now performing reasonably well. One will not get synergy, and most likely will get reduced performance overall for several years.
    • The secretary of a cabinet level department will lose the advantages of heading a tactical headquarters and have to deal daily with administrative matters that will divert him and his staff from the mission to achieve an adequate degree of security for the homeland.
    • Direct line authority is not needed to do the job Tom Ridge was hired to do. One can get the same or even better results by gaining clout and using it cleverly. He needs to create a virtual national organization.

Despite the evident truth of Petronius Arbiter’s saying, many chiefs—particularly new chiefs—try to solve operational problems by rearranging the boxes on the organization chart. Government agencies seemingly are always reorganizing, and a cursory review of the business news reveals that reorganization mania infects commercial firms as well. It seems that the first thing a new chief executive wants to do is change something—perhaps to make his or her presence felt by the underlings. The results are almost always confusion and loss of cohesion.

Even a whiff of reorganization paralyzes a government organization. From 1989 to 1994 the Department of Energy was always being reorganized. It was either recovering from reorganization, under threat of imminent reorganization, or undergoing reorganization. Successive Energy Secretaries entered the Department and announced that they were going to reorganize for the usual reasons—efficiency, economy, and effectiveness. Once a new reorganization was announced, the employees slowed down or stopped work altogether. They stopped talking shop and instead speculated about reductions in force or lateral transfers or who would work for whom doing what. There was little enthusiasm for finishing existing projects, and there were no new starts. This adverse reaction to reorganization is typical of every government agency.

Reorganization causes a severe disruption of existing practices and relationships. When agencies are torn from their parent organizations and thrust into new and unfamiliar surroundings, they spend a lot of time connecting to their new superior, lateral, and subordinate contacts. They have to get used to the unfamiliar style and expectations of the new front office. They have to connect or reconnect with the offices on the same level in other agencies with whom they have to do business. Most importantly, they have to establish new links with the subordinate organizations upon whom they depend for supplies, support, and getting the actual work done. This takes time and diverts attention of the transferred organization from doing things.

Ironically, one of the best examples of the difficulties caused by merging previously separated agencies is that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). President Carter wanted to place into one organization all agencies dealing with emergencies, and in 1979, FEMA was formed by merging into a single entity five major agencies from existing organizations. The National Fire Prevention and Control Administration came from the Department of Commerce. The National Flood Administration and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration came from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Defense Civil Preparedness Agency came from the Department of Defense. And the Federal Preparedness Agency, which coordinated federal civil planning for national emergencies, came from the General Services Administration. Each of these agencies brought with them not only programs but also agendas and attitudes.

The first director of FEMA was John Macy, an eminent civil servant who did a grand job as head of the Civil Service Commission, but Macy was unable to unite the jealous agencies that formed FEMA. The next director was Louis O. Giuffrida, who recognized the problem and exerted great effort to form a unified agency. Retreats were held, organizational development processes were pursued, and earnest efforts were made to unit the five dukedoms. Some progress was made, but leadership peccadilloes largely nullified the gains, and beneath a facade of cooperation, the partisans of the original five agencies failed to cooperate wholeheartedly. Competition was particularly vicious between the people who came from the disaster side and those who came from the national security side. In 1993, FEMA was completely reorganized, and the last traces of the original organizations disappeared. Unfortunately, half of FEMA’s original mission also disappeared. The Civil Defense program was eliminated as an "artifact of the Cold War," and the policy formulation and planning that had been done for national security emergencies was abandoned. After twenty years of internal strife, the disaster assistance function reigned supreme, and up until the 9/11 Attacks, FEMA simply refused to pay serious attention to anything but response, mitigation, and particularly recovery (in the sense of distributing disaster assistance money) to natural disasters. For FEMA, the cost of unification was the elimination of all vestiges of national security preparedness. So, it is fair to say that the grand expectations of the Carter Administration for its new agency were not fulfilled, and in that sense FEMA was a failure. The point is that simply transferring people and programs from one culture to another is a risky business that takes time to bear fruit, which fruit may be different from that which was originally intended.

The proposed Department of Homeland Security will be too small because there is no logical limit to the number of agencies that would have to be included to do the whole job. All federal departments and agencies have a role to play in Homeland Security. As laid out in Executive Order 12656, 1988, each department and agency in the Federal Government is currently assigned responsibility in the event of a national security emergency. That means, among other things, that a truly comprehensive Department of Homeland Security would have to include every Federal department and agency. If, as President Bush and you have said, Homeland Security is every American’s business, the organization should also include also the state and local government and private sector organizations too. This is obviously impracticable, and a new Department of Homeland Security would still have to work with numerous departments and agencies that are not included under its direct line authority.

Another problem with the proposed Department of Homeland Security is that it would require the leadership to focus on running an agency instead of preparing the whole nation. Preparedness for high-cost low-probability events requires an uncommon degree of intensity on the essentials of the mission. Homeland Security should be an operational headquarters for a flexible organization instead of an administrative headquarters for a fixed organization.

The Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 divided the Department of Defense into two kinds of organizations: administrative and operational. The Military Services and the Defense Agencies are administrative in nature and are charged with raising, training, maintaining, and sustaining military units and personnel to be made available to the combatant commanders. The combatant commanders are the operators who obtain units and personnel from the services and defense agencies, and organize, deploy, and employ them in military operations. In this arrangement, the combatant commanders do not actually "own" the troops under them, but they have sufficient authority to direct their operations in a campaign. The national chain of command for the conduct of military operations runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders. The services and defense agencies are not in this operational chain of command but are in a supporting role.

Director Ridge is presently the combatant commander for Homeland Security. He reports directly to the President, who is the commander-in-chief. He has—or can obtain—the authority to direct the operations of all or parts of federal agencies in the homeland security campaign of the war against terrorism, and he doesn’t need to own any of these agencies to do that. Unencumbered by administrative responsibilities, he can plan, influence the allocation of resources, and control homeland security operations. The federal cabinet departments and independent agencies will be his field armies and divisions. They will do the work of providing homeland security under his operational guidance and direction.

Does Ridge really want to "own" these agencies and become a full-fledged secretary with a department to manage as well as a campaign to conduct. Taking on the essential but routine tasks of staffing, managing, budgeting, and conducting day-to-day operations will divert him from the necessary thinking, planning, nagging, pushing, and coaxing of his peers to do their part in the overall program to secure America. In fact, becoming a cabinet secretary would be a demotion. You would no longer be first among equals but just another department head. And, anyway, he doesn’t need to assume ownership over other agencies in order to do his job.

Ridge has announced that he seeks to form a national organization that includes all levels of government (federal, state, and local) as well as the private sector organizations, and the citizenry. That is good. It also means that there is no way he is going to have directive authority over all of the people and organizations you will have to depend on to get his job done. You can’t just issue orders and expect all of these people to obey them. You have to persuade them that civil preparedness is good for them.

He needs to form a virtual organization. "Virtual" means "not-real," so the organization will have to be a loose confederation of groups whose vectors are generally aligned in the same direction. He won’t have unity of command, but he can achieve unity of purpose and unity of effort. Creating and managing a virtual organization requires great leadership skills and five other things: clout, measurable outputs, a feedback circuit, a little bit of money, and a lot of patience.

The United States should avoid a reorganization that will only complicate the job and instead focus on getting the federal departments and agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector to work together for Homeland Security.