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Tough Questions About Homeland Security Have Gone Missing

By James A. Thomson

James Thomson is president and chief executive officer of the RAND Corporation.

James Thomson

The RAND Corporation is an institution famous for sometimes telling its clients that they are asking the wrong questions. Today, we must go one step further. What should be one of our most important clients — the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — isn’t asking many critical policy questions at all.

Since September 11, 2001, RAND has produced a number of analyses of homeland security policies. A peculiar feature of this work is that DHS has had only a minor role in funding it. Most of the funding has come from other agencies (such as the U.S. Departments of Justice, Defense, and Health and Human Services) or from our own discretionary sources.

How come? Our experience with DHS points to deeper problems within the agency.

First, the goals and strategy of DHS remain ill-defined. DHS leaders are thus left to “manage by inbox,” with the dominant mode of DHS behavior being crisis management.

Second, DHS implements most of its programs with little or no evaluation of their performance. When performance metrics have been implemented, they have often measured inputs and outputs only — not effectiveness. We do not know, therefore, where and how much to invest in homeland security options.

Third, as demonstrated by its response to Hurricane Katrina, the agency that was supposed to enhance the coordination and integration of homeland security efforts has had limited success in doing so. One consequence is that DHS is subject to frequent reorganizations proposed by a dissatisfied U.S. Congress.

To put these problems in context, the creation of DHS was the most sweeping reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in 1947. In some ways, creating DHS was even more complex, combining 22 agencies and major programs, compared with just 3 agencies in the case of DoD. One key step in the DoD process began after about 15 years, under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: the consolidation of policy, program, and budget authorities in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Unfortunately, we can’t wait 15 years. Al Qaeda and its copycats are planning to strike now. We need an efficient, indeed an agile, DHS to help protect us.

Three steps would help. First, DHS needs high-level, department-wide policy leadership charged with developing and maintaining a strategic vision. In other cabinet agencies that are assigned security responsibilities, this key leadership position is commonly called an undersecretary of policy. Such a position has not yet been established in DHS, despite several attempts to do so. For reasons I cannot fathom, both Congress and the White House stand in the way.

We can’t wait 15 years. Al Qaeda and its copycats are planning to strike now.

Second, the homeland security secretary needs an analytical arm, like McNamara’s Office of Systems Analysis, to ensure that the program and budget of the department reflect its policy and strategy. McNamara’s triumph, controversial at the time (especially in Congress), was to create a coherent, integrated five-year program, from which a one-year budget appropriation could be derived.

Third, both the policy office and the analytical arm need to tap into the nation’s academic and analytic communities, whose members can contemplate key issues and feed their analyses back into the federal agencies. Today, DHS receives little analytical advice on issues of policy, program, and budget.

Let’s face it: I’m biased. Today, I lead the institution that recommended and helped implement the DoD reforms initiated in the 1960s and that advised the Office of Systems Analysis. Like my predecessor in this job, I cut my teeth in the Office of Systems Analysis, in the 1970s in my case and the 1960s in his. But I’m convinced that these kinds of changes are needed again today so that DHS can cope with the serious threat this nation faces. square