The Thinker

Like moving an aircraft carrier with paddles

As you might expect on my forum we have been discussing Hurricane Katrina. Who is to blame? Who is not to blame? Some fault New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin for not having fleets of school buses ready to ferry citizens to safety. Others criticize the Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco for not having an effective response to Hurricane Katrina. (It is harder to be effective when a third of the state’s National Guard is stuck in Iraq.)

Those of us living outside Louisiana are more focused on the response by federal officials. FEMA director Michael Brown dutifully fell on his sword. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff so far seems to be dodging responsibility, but he may be called to account in time. President Bush now says that he takes responsibility for the poor response by the federal government. These are surprising words from him, since he has spent the first five years of his presidency avoiding accountability. Naturally, his admission does not mean that he is planning to resign. Atonement seems to consist of spending in only a few months more money on hurricane relief and reconstruction than we spent so far for the entire Iraq war. Doubtless, his political adviser Karl Rove is pushing him to do so because he is fearful that some otherwise red states may flip to blue. It takes a heap of money to satisfy over a million very angry and displaced citizens, if it can be done at all.

It is human nature to cast blame. In this case, there appears to be plenty to go around. I would like to suggest that perhaps Congress was also to blame by creating the Department of Homeland Security in the first place.

Just in case you are wondering if I hate America and want terrorists to run free, that is not how I feel. I just wonder if creating a centralized cabinet level department, amounting to the largest reorganization of the federal government in fifty years, was the smartest way to protect our homeland. As a long-term strategy, perhaps it made some sense. In the short-term those of us who have been around the bureaucracy a while knew what to expect: a lot of dysfunction and chaos.

The last agency I worked for, the Administration for Children and Families is a typical example of what happens when agencies merge. When I arrived in 1998, the agency was still quite obviously still the two agencies it had been prior to 1991. The reality was that it still acted like the two agencies it had been: the Family Support Administration and the Office of Human Development Services. Each was still doing its own thing, right down to using dissimilar email systems. Sure, they were trying to become one integrated agency but it was still a daunting process. Each agency had a long legacy of doing things their own way. Each had programs that had to keep going in spite of the merger. So merging the two agencies into one agency in reality was something that was very hard to do. It was a little like running and juggling at the same time. It is possible, but most of us do not acquire this skill easily.

By government standards, the merger that produced ACF was not too complex. After all, these were just two agencies that needed to come together, not a dozen. In addition, they belonged to the same department before the merger. By the time I left, thirteen years after the merger, integration finally felt achieved. For one thing, the agency was finally using one email system.

Now look at this new Department of Homeland Security. Pieces of DHS came from the Treasury, Health and Human Services, Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, Defense and Energy departments. It also absorbed portions of independent agencies like the FBI and GSA, and the entire Federal Protective Service. Before the merger, these agencies rarely talked to each other.

Of course, each of these agencies had previous missions that were left largely intact after their consolidation into DHS. While the DHS secretary had authority over these agencies, the reality was that getting them orchestrated was and continues to be a big and frustrating endeavor. To take one example, a new DHS performance based personnel system needs to be created. Meanwhile these agencies are having a tough time continuing their old mission. Why? Because a lot of chaos is being thrown at them. Just because INS became ICE did not mean that immigrants were going to stop coming into the country. Second, they have new or expanded missions directed by the DHS secretary. Third, boundary lines and responsibilities became unclear. They may be there on paper, but working through the low-level intricacies to implement these changes is very difficult. Fourth, they are being pressured to make all these big changes very quickly. The result is that instead of having a dozen or so agencies that in the past were reasonably effective in their individual missions, now there are a dozen or so agencies with reduced ability to carry out their missions. They seem like they are stuck in the tar pit.

There are possible ways around this sort of bureaucratic mess. One way is to have centralized budgetary authority but to continue to let each agency to perform its mission relatively freely. In other words, the DHS secretary could set goals for what needed to be done but leave the strategy and implementation to the individual agencies. The downside is that each agency may misinterpret what they should do, and there may be turf battles. The upside is the things that each agency can probably carry out its individual missions fairly well, since sand is probably not gunking up their engines.

It appears though that DHS, trying to bend to the will of the president and Congress, promised the moon. They would do it all, and they would do it all very quickly. It was a stupid thing to promise of course. However, good civil servants simply salute and do their best to make it so. Unfortunately, their best cannot possibly meet Congress’s unrealistic and stratospheric expectations. Congress always asks for the moon, and they want it yesterday. They expect elephants to dance immediately.

The result is a lot of bureaucratic dysfunction, some of which I believe was sadly but predictably manifest in the response to Hurricane Katrina. It was the idea of homeland security meeting the sad but predictable reality of how fast a new large organization can meet its new mission. Instead of acting like a well-trained police force, we had the Keystone Kops. Should we act surprised if they were never sent to the academy?

Our government is of course very large because it is being asked to manage large, difficult and multifaceted problems. Believe it or not it can do many things very well. I ought to know. I have been a civil servant for over twenty years. My current agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, is amazingly well run and effective. However, it has also largely been left to itself. It retains the same name it had when it was created in the 19th century. As a science organization, it is largely left alone to do its science. I have little doubt that if it were pulled apart and its pieces stuck in different departments that it would devolve into a collection of inefficient pieces.

A new department like DHS can be envisioned like new large aircraft carrier just out of the dry dock. The crew is new, coming on board, finding their quarters and checking out the ship. The crew consists of people who worked on completely different kinds of ships and boats. So right now, the crew is trying to figure out how to get the engines to run and to steer the ship. It will come in time. Nevertheless, for now expecting DHS to move efficiently is like trying to move this aircraft carrier with many long paddles from the flight deck. Perhaps with everyone rowing at the same time even this behemoth ship will move. However good the idea of DHS was in the abstract, do not expect it to be smooth sailing for many years to come. Let us hope those out to destroy our country have many other distractions or are more inept.


One Response to “Like moving an aircraft carrier with paddles”

  1. 8:57 pm on September 20 2005, lamont said:

    I agree with your opinions on our government agencies. I hope that all future candidates will campaign on promising to dismantle Homeland Security. Too many cooks in the kitchen do not result in anything except further complicating functions. Bush seems to have iterated redundency syndrome. Thanks for you great website.

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