DHS' latest red flag: Job holes

Problems could become acute with the change of administration in 2008.

The Homeland Security Department’s inability to fill critical positions has again put in doubt its ability to fulfill its public safety and national security mission, lawmakers said. House and Senate legislators continue to express concern about key management positions going unfilled.

The latest criticism is based on new data compiled by the House Homeland Security Committee, which found a 24 percent vacancy rate across DHS. The committee reported 138 vacancies among the 575 total executive resource positions. Another concern is that many DHS senior executive positions are political appointees, who could be replaced by the next administration.

Because of DHS’ unique mission, the absence of these executives directly affects the country’s homeland security and readiness, the report states.

The vacant executive resource positions include political appointees and senior career employees. Combined, those vacancies could leave the country vulnerable and without senior executives who would make the decisions necessary to be prepared for emergencies or respond to them, most notably during the transition after a presidential election, the House report states.

“But unless these positions are filled in the next few months, mainly by qualified and experienced career civil servants, who will have time to assume the main department functions, the problem will remain. And so will the enhanced threat to homeland security,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said in the report released last week.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee’s Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia Subcommittee, said he has continually expressed concern to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff about the department’s staffing shortages.

“The ongoing vacancies in key leadership and operational positions directly hamper the department’s ability to carry out its many vital missions,” Voinovich said. “This problem is a result of the severe management challenges plaguing the department.”

However, DHS added 73 Senior Executive Service positions in March, and that inflated the numbers in the House report, said DHS spokeswoman Laura Keehner.

“We think these findings are very skewed. We look at the force for where this came from,” she said, referring to the Democrats’ control of Congress. 

DHS has a 12 percent vacancy rate, which is consistent with other departments. Many job candidates are awaiting final human resources processes and background checks, she said.

“It’s still a new department,” Keehner said. “We’re getting stronger every year. Leadership is putting measures in place to look at how we can continue to attract the best and most qualified applicants.” 

DHS also is on par with the rest of government with the number of politically appointed executives. At 14 of its component agencies, career civil servants have one of the two top leadership spots, while at seven of its agencies, career executives are in the No. 3 or 4 spot. Having career civil servants in many of the top-level leadership positions ensures the continuity of government remains strong, Keehner said.

“We would vehemently disagree with the fact that we are too politically heavy. Many of these are folks who have served in those agencies for years,” she said.

DHS is not the only agency to have a large number of political executives. That is happening across government, said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.

“Top positions formerly held by top career senior executives are now held by political appointees with the combined net effect to move career executives further from top political leadership,” she said.

Career executives provide institutional memory and have the capabilities, skills and knowledge they’ve developed from working in that department and in other agencies, and they are a link when political appointees change, she said.

“With that number of vacancies and with a high number of political appointees, that is worrisome,” Bonosaro said.