Neither presidential campaign has contacted DHS about transition

Published 23 September 2008

DHS has set up transition teams to facilitate a smooth and effective transmission of information and transition of authority to the new administration, but neither the McCain or the Obama campaign has contacted the teams

Neither presidential campaign has contacted DHS about transition issues, and that oversight could heighten the country’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack, DHS top management official said on Thursday. GovExec’s Brittany Ballenstedt reports that Elaine Duke, undersecretary for management at DHS, said the department is working to prepare itself for the handoff to a new administration and for a possible terrorist attack in the coming months, but that it is the responsibility of the McCain and Obama campaigns right now to name key potential political appointees at the department. Duke testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia.

Frank Chellino, panel chairman of a DHS transition study at the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), noted that NAPA has questioned why the campaigns have not reached out to DHS transition teams, saying it was critical to submit appointee paperwork prior to the election. “It seems to be an issue of who should be doing the contacting and when it’s supposed to be done,” he said.

The panel’s ranking member, Senator George Voinovich (R-Ohio) asked whether it would be helpful if the subcommittee sent the campaigns letters urging them to contact the DHS transition teams. “It would be a great idea for you to reach out to them,” said Patricia McGinnis, president of the Council for Excellence in Government. “There’s this funny dance that goes on this time of year. No one wants to be presumptuous by picking out the drapes or getting their nominees in place.”

Voinovich said he and Subcommittee chairman Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) also plan to advise all Senate committees on the qualities to look for in nominees and to encourage a speedier confirmation process. “There has to be a way we can move this thing along so we aren’t the problem, when so often, we are the problem,” he said.

DHS also is looking at how it can better manage the security and suitability processes required for political appointees. Beyond the security risk, Duke said, the government examines whether an individual is right for employment. “These are two time-intensive processes,” she said. “For new employees at DHS who need both suitability and a clearance, we will run those [processes] in concurrence.”

Meanwhile, Akaka expressed concern with the overall 18 percent vacancy rate in executive positions reported in NAPA’s June study on the DHS transition. He noted specific concern with the 50 percent executive vacancy rate at the National Protection and Programs Directorate, as well as a 25 percent vacancy rate at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “High vacancy rates will compound the burden placed on top career officials when appointees leave,” Akaka said. “I know that DHS is working to address this situation, but time is running short.” Duke said DHS has reduced the number of vacancies across the department to 13 percent, with openings at NCPP and FEMA falling to 34 percent and 15 percent, respectively. “It’s not what it needs to be,” she said, “but we are managing it.”

John Rollins, a terrorism and national security specialist at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), commended DHS for being further ahead in its transition planning than other security agencies. “This department is still young enough that it hasn’t developed any bad practices with the transition,” he said. “For other agencies, this is a four- or eight-year activity, so complacency has set in and they’ll approach it like they did prior to 9/11.”

Rollins and McGinnis expressed particular concern, however, with DHS’ lack of transition planning with state and local officials. “You don’t want to be exchanging business cards during an emergency,” McGinnis said. “This is work to be done, related both to the transition period and our ongoing security.” Duke, however, said FEMA regularly works with the Northern Command and National Guard in conducting exercises with state and local governments. She said the department can go a step further to ensure that all contact information for new appointees is communicated to state and local governments. “The most important thing we can do is make sure they know who’s going to be at DHS,” she said. “The actual response won’t change … it’s just knowing the right people.”