Challenges and Opportunities Ahead for New Homeland Security Secretary


Oct 24, 2013

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Jeh Johnson during an announcement for Johnson to be his nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Jeh Johnson during an announcement for Johnson to be his nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security

photo by Reuters/Jason Reed

Should President Obama's nominee for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, be confirmed — and early indications are he will — the former presidential legal advisor will walk into a strategic environment filled with complex security challenges.

For example:

  • Hurricane Sandy served as a reminder that old assumptions about where and how frequently natural disasters occur may no longer be valid, and infrastructure and disaster planning must account for changes in these risks to maintain a resilient society.

  • As Congress debates immigration reform, the Department of Homeland Security may find itself overhauling border security operations, workplace enforcement, and administration of visa policies if the United States is to implement a holistic system for managing immigration.

  • The more that is learned about cyber threats to financial networks, control system software, and intellectual property, the more it becomes evident the United States must develop a new cybersecurity strategy, doctrine, and standards for securing civilian cyberspace.

  • Revelations about the motivations behind the terrorist attacks in Boston underscore the importance of countering the variety of threats from home-grown radicalization, transnational crime, and terrorism networks.

  • While the global community reacts to nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, U.S. homeland security officials must consider how to protect the country from nuclear terrorism in a period of potential proliferation.

But, he won't be able to do everything at once.

One can argue that the Department of Homeland Security's most notable organizational accomplishment has been developing the ability to respond in a unified, coordinated manner, as exemplified in the response to Hurricane Sandy. The next step in the department's maturation requires more than just unified action. For the department to continue its growth it must develop integrated plans that set priorities, direct resources to achieve outcomes consistent with these priorities, and conduct evaluations to ensure these outcomes are realized.

To ensure DHS makes progress on any of these challenges in the current constrained budget environment, the new secretary must put in place a coordinated strategic perspective to guide priorities for how to address the country's most pressing problems in disaster management, immigration reform, cybersecurity, violent extremism, and nuclear terrorism.

Building and implementing this capability for strategic planning is a long-term project. In congressional testimony earlier this year, I highlighted several concrete steps the new secretary could take to move the department in this direction.

  • First, require greater transparency for strategic planning, program implementation, and evaluation efforts conducted by and for the department;

  • Second, develop a stable, well-resourced cadre of personnel within DHS to conduct strategic analysis and support decisionmaking;

  • Third, work with the White House and Congress to streamline oversight of the department's activities.

DHS currently has efforts underway as part of the second Quadrennial Homeland Security Review that are consistent with the goal of integrating department-wide strategic planning into decisionmaking about priorities and budgets. These three initiatives would ensure the department is successful in continuing its development.

Henry H. Willis is a senior policy researcher and director of the RAND Homeland Security and Defense Center.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.