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Homeland Security Struggles with 'Extraordinary' Turnover

By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 2005-06-09 Print this article Print

The anti-terrorism agency wants to make the United States tougher to attack, but first it must solve the problem of chronic turnover among its technology execs.

Michael Chertoff is putting the final touches on a review of operations at the agency responsible for protecting the United States from terrorists.

This review, coming in Chertoff's fourth month as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, may dictate how the nation's cities, ports, nuclear plants, bridges, highways and borders will be protected—and what systems and organization changes will be needed to gird against attack.

But he may not have the people to produce the changes he wants.

In particular, Chertoff may need to find ways to retain information-technology talent amid "extraordinary" senior management turnover, as Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) puts it.

"The number of positions which are unfilled at senior management levels is unacceptable," said Gregg on April 20 as Chertoff testified before a Senate appropriations subcommittee.

In late March and early April, the Department of Homeland Security lost chief information officer Steven Cooper and his deputy, Mark Emery. Cooper became CIO at the American Red Cross. Emery became a vice president at PEC Solutions, a Fairfax, Va., technology services firm.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Ron Hewitt is currently the department's acting CIO.

Since Chertoff's predecessor as Homeland Security secretary, Tom Ridge, resigned in November, at least seven high-level executives, including Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson and Bob Liscouski, the department's first assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, have left.

Like private companies, Homeland Security must find ways to keep projects, such as consolidating information systems it has inherited from 22 different federal agencies, moving in the face of extreme turnover.

"Continuity and information-technology success go together in every organization, but in the government the effect is more pronounced," says Lee Strickland, director of the Center for Information Policy at the University of Maryland and a Central Intelligence Agency veteran.

Homeland Security Assistant Press Secretary Valerie Smith says "it was a natural time" for executives to leave. She adds that projects such as creating the department's technology blueprint and developing common data-sharing standards are continuing as planned.

How to deal with departures at critical times? Here are three ways:

1. Develop a Turnover-Proof Structure

One of the key issues Chertoff has to address is how much power a chief information officer should have, says James Carafano, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a policy think tank. "Steve [Cooper] took things about as far as he could, but he didn't have funding or personnel power," Carafano says.

The department's technology management is set up as a council of all the CIOs from components such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. Secret Service. Working with that council is the Homeland Security CIO, usually a political appointee, and a deputy, considered a "career" employee whose tenure outlasts administration changes.

Cooper acknowledges that some projects may have slowed pending Chertoff's review and management turnover, but the CIOs from the agencies carrying out technology initiatives have remained and major programs are moving forward. "These projects can save lives and are too important to be delayed," Cooper says.

But whether the department's current technology management structure remains intact is debatable.

Richard Skinner, acting inspector general at Homeland Security, told a House subcommittee on April 20 that the CIO should report directly to Chertoff or his deputy. According to Skinner, the department's organizational structure is deficient because the CIO lacks the authority to "strategically manage department-wide technology assets and programs."

While most analysts favor giving the next Homeland Security CIO more power, there is a downside. "You have to make sure that the CIO's tenure isn't short," Strickland says.

Next page: Losing people but not projects.

Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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