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Homeland Security: Do It Right
Mitchell E. Daniels Jr.

The Washington Post

July 23, 2002

Among today's weariest business cliches is "clean sheet of paper," meant to connote a fresh start and new thinking, a breaking loose from traditional encumbrances to new levels of performance.

Though common in the private sector, this phrase is rarely heard in government because the whole idea of dramatic change seems so impractical and far-fetched. That's why the president's plan to create a new Department of Homeland Security presents such a unique opportunity. This most critical mission, the protection of Americans in their homeland, requires that we seize that opportunity, not only in the "what" but also the "how" of the department's assignment, by providing it true freedom to manage.

Given the chance, no one interested in a well-run federal government would seek to bring about the system with which we are saddled today. Committed public servants -- career and appointed -- struggle through a Sargasso Sea of rules and red tape that all too often drag down and drown their best ideas and boldest intentions.

Government managers are tortuously restricted in the use of the most basic management tools. They cannot hire whom they wish or fire whom they should. They cannot reward superstars or penalize slackers. Statistically speaking, a federal employee had a 0.02722 percent chance of being dismissed for performance reasons alone in the five-year period 1997-2001.

Managers have no real incentives to drive for improvement. Any proceeds from efficiency gains or sales of unused assets go back to the Treasury instead of accruing to their departments; worse yet, such savings are often used as evidence that the managers have "failed" to spend enough. The complex rules governing purchases of goods and services almost guarantee foolish decisions: In the time it takes the government to buy a computer system, the technology becomes outdated before it comes on-line.

Most Cabinet secretaries cannot move more than a trivial amount of money from one purpose to another as circumstances change. They cannot stop spending money on programs that are clearly failing. Even the president is handcuffed. The White House budget is carved into 11 separate entities and 20 accounts, and the president cannot redirect even $1 from, say, the National Economic Council to the National Security Council without an act of Congress.

And then there's the mountain of paperwork Congress imposes. One survey from the mid-1990s found that executive branch agencies were compelled to submit 5,300 reports to Capitol Hill. In 2001 the Department of Defense filed on average four reports every working day. The General Accounting Office recently estimated that more than 300 new reports are being required each year. Repeating this pattern at the new department would not serve the cause of a safer America.

When Congress authored these "thou shalts" and "shalt nots," each probably seemed reasonable in isolation, a good idea at the time. Collectively, however, they render much of government painfully slow and timid. In many ways, the federal government suffers from dysfunction by design.

It is time to begin liberating federal managers throughout the government from these paralyzing restrictions, as President Bush has proposed in his "Freedom to Manage" legislation. But it is absolutely imperative that the Homeland Security Department be launched free and clear of such constraints. Where the safety of Americans is at stake, where speed, agility and flexibility will be literally life-or-death matters, it would be unconscionable to build in the processes that made the IRS and the Postal Service fodder for talk show humor.

Yes, the new DHS management should meet its obligations to keep Congress informed, but let's make sure it has some time left over to anticipate, deter and prevent terrorist acts.

President Bush's bold vision must be matched by boldness in execution. The new Department of Homeland Security must be free to protect Americans with all the imagination and aggressiveness its employees will bring to work with them. Al Qaeda and its imitators do not subject themselves to lengthy processes to move dollars around or make personnel decisions; our defenders cannot thwart them using the operations manual of HUD or the Veterans Administration.

Done right, what Congress writes on this rare clean sheet can make possible a more secure America and eventually help us untie managerial talent across the executive branch.

The writer is director of the Office of Management and Budget.