Friday, July 13, 2007

Many Homeland top jobs empty, report finds

Many Homeland top jobs empty, report finds
Congressional study says 138 vacancies leaves nation less ready for an emergency
Spencer S. Hsu, Washington Post
Monday, July 9, 2007

(07-09) 04:00 PDT Washington -- The Bush administration has failed to fill roughly a quarter of the top leadership posts at the Department of Homeland Security, creating a gaping hole in the nation's preparedness for a terrorist attack or other threat, according to a congressional report to be released today.

As of May 1, Homeland Security had 138 vacancies among its top 575 positions, with the greatest voids reported in its policy, legal and intelligence sections, as well as immigration agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard. The vacant slots include presidential, senior executive and other high-level appointments, according to the report by the House Homeland Security Committee.

A Homeland Security spokesman challenged the report's tally, saying that it was skewed by a sudden expansion this spring in the number of top management jobs. Before then, only 12 percent of positions were unfilled in a department that has always been thinly staffed at headquarters, spokesman Russ Knocke said.

The findings have stoked fresh concern among some in Congress about the four-year-old department's progress in overcoming management problems, dating to its troubled 2003 merger from 22 components.

Homeland Security was reorganized in 2005 by its current secretary, Michael Chertoff, then suffered a breakdown at multiple levels in responding to Hurricane Katrina that August, which prompted a new congressional overhaul.

"One of the continuing problems appears to be the over-politicization of the top rank of Department management," concludes the report by the committee, chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. "This could lead to heightened vulnerability to terrorist attack."

Thompson said vacancies have weakened morale and reflect an over-reliance on contractors. Thompson also called the report a warning "that we can expect more vacancies to occur than what we have been accustomed to" at the close of the administration, when many top personnel will leave their posts.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, agreed that the inability to fill jobs is creating problems within Homeland Security offices. While walking his district Sunday, Davis said, he met constituents employed at an immigration agency who described lowered morale at work because of the vacancies.

Of the 138 vacant positions, Homeland Security provided no explanation for 70, according to the House report. Seven others had tentative or pending appointees and 60 were under recruitment.

A major focus of the current department leadership, Knocke said, is preparing a competent bench of managers by 2009, when a new presidential administration will come into power. Department officials said they have replaced officials whose qualifications and political backgrounds were called into question in favor of more seasoned personnel.

For Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson, "planning for the transition is a huge part of how he spends his time each day," Knocke said, "to ensure that we have the right caliber of leaders in the number two and three positions at our component agencies and program offices, so that they are well trained, well-experienced and ready."

Nevertheless, congressional auditors, management consultants and academic experts on government have warned that efforts to improve Homeland Security management are being undercut by several trends. The department faces high turnover because top officials are in high demand by a private sector willing to pay lucrative salaries. It depends heavily on contractors, yet its staff to manage them is overstretched. And partisan political combat over homeland security issues has made jobs less attractive.

This article appeared on page A - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle

© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.


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