Holes in the DHS

Announcing last week's resignation of Michael P. Jackson as second-in-command at the Department of Homeland Security, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff noted that Jackson "is the longest-serving deputy secretary" at the department.

When two-and-a-half years on the job warrants special mention, it says something about managerial stability at the DHS.

That's no knock against Jackson. He said he's leaving for more money, and you can't fault him for that. At the DHS, he earns $168,000 for serving as chief operating officer of a department with 22 agencies and 208,000 employees.

But he's the third person to hold the deputy secretary's job since the department was created in the wake of 9/11. The first DHS deputy secretary, Gordon England, served nine months. His successor, James Loy, lasted 16 months. At least Jackson's longer tenure continues a positive trend.

Under the best circumstances, the DHS would be a difficult management challenge. It's a sprawling, complicated organization that was put together on the fly. It combined some agencies that previously had barely spoken to each other.

Chertoff praised Jackson for bringing "focus, discipline and planning" to DHS operations, budgets and policies, for advancing the integration of the department's agencies and working to develop a "common department culture."

Whoever follows Jackson will inherit the difficult challenge of getting DHS agencies, with their differing missions and levels of competence, to work together as a team. As the department's COO, the deputy secretary's main job is getting DHS agencies to pull in the same direction and holding them accountable for results.

There's speculation that after Jackson leaves on Oct. 26, an acting deputy secretary could remain in that capacity for the remainder of the current administration. Meanwhile, departures of other senior executives are all but certain as the Bush administration winds down.

The turnover and vacancies have not gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has been badgering the department to prepare a succession plan "for the mass exodus that will occur due to an administration change" after next year's elections.

Thompson said Jackson's departure "reaffirms two things we've known for some time, that DHS employees suffer from the lowest morale in the federal work force, and that the department's leadership has more holes than Swiss cheese."

Hyperbole aside, Thompson has a point. Any organization's effectiveness is bound to suffer when turnover is high and there's a shortage of successors with the proper combination of operational and political skills. That's doubly true for a department as complex as the DHS.

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