A report released today (pdf) by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has added to worries that vacancy and turnover rates at the highest levels of the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) may impede its ability to protect the nation. Last week, the House Committee on Homeland Security made public its own "majority report" (pdf) containing similar conclusions. Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) remarked today in the Washington Post:
It is no wonder that this department is struggling with its integration when its own headquarters has lost half of its senior staff to turnover.
When senior leadership doesn't stick around long enough for their coffee to get cold, the nation's security suffers.
Nevertheless, the GAO’s findings aren’t all negative. The Transportation Security Administration had the highest levels of turnover due to loss of screeners in 2005, but after factoring TSA out of the agency-wide results, DHS turnover rates have actually been lower than those of other agencies. Furthermore, DHS met four out of five of the GAO’s management criteria for compliance with the Vacancies Reform Act. These include reporting, responsibility, and communication factors.
Yet DHS did not meet the fifth criteria of having a documented and formal set of policies and procedures for complying with the Vacancies Reform Act. Instead, the agency relied on an “informal outline” to convey policy from one attorney to the next. This is a particular cause for concern since former-DHS General Counsel Philip Perry (VP Cheney’s son-in-law) left earlier this year and the position is now occupied by an acting general counsel. The GAO report doesn’t detail whether or not there have been problems with the transition.
Finally, it’s especially troubling that many of the DHS components listed as having the highest percentage of senior-level vacancies are also the same ones in charge of oversight functions and large contract programs – e.g. the Asst. Sec. for Policy’s office, the Inspector General’s office, the General Counsel, FEMA, and the Coast Guard. The numbers for these components (contained in the House Committee report) all exceed the agency-wide average.
-- John Pruett