Securing the Homeland (Part 1): An Interview with Former Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge

I am currently writing a textbook on homeland security (due out from Routledge 2015).  Unique to this text are interviews with renowned experts in the fields of homeland security and national security.  Former Gov. Tom Ridge is one such expert.  Mr. Ridge has had a remarkable and distinguished career in public service and served as a member of the United States House of Representatives (1983–1995), the 43rd Governor of Pennsylvania (1995–2001), Assistant to the President for Homeland Security (2001–2003), and was the first United States Secretary of Homeland Security (2003–2005).  An excerpt of his interview appears below. Read the rest when it publishes later this year.

What challenges did you have standing up the Department of Homeland Security?

TR: The seminal challenge, in my mind, was convincing Congress and ultimately Americans in the 21st century, particularly after 9/11, that it was absolutely essential for the United States to build a border-centric agency that effectively monitored people and goods coming in and out of the country. The inter-connectedness and inter-dependency of the global community and the forces of globalization necessitated the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. In fact, I would have argued for its creation even before 9/11.

The second most significant challenge was creating a collective sense of mission among the disparate entities that form DHS so that every agency appreciated the necessity of newfound internal collaboration among government agencies entities that had previously existed in silo’ed and closed-off entities.

A third challenge was to integrate the capabilities of each component agency of DHS in a way that was both efficient in terms of the resources committed, while being effective in terms of the outcome desired. If one thinks of DHS initially as a holding company, those who were involved at the outset of DHS would remind you that underneath the holding company umbrella we had mergers, acquisitions, start-ups, and a few other things going on all under one entity called DHS. Thus, the mechanics of starting up DHS were very complicated, but the first two challenges were the most important substantively and intellectually.

Do you believe that a government entity such as DHS was the best way to solve the lack of coordination among government agencies that existed prior to 9/11?

TR: One of the observations I made when standing up DHS, predicated both on my experience previously as a Congressman and then as Governor of Pennsylvania and then certainly as Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, is that not too much moves in Washington D.C. as far as integrating capabilities unless you control budgets.

DHS was a new department in name, but it was created through the assimilation of multiple agencies for whom border responsibilities were very essential. To the extent that agencies with authority over and around the border were included in a border-centric agency, DHS’s initial structure was appropriately framed - the agencies and units of government that were integrated into DHS were clearly appropriate. At the outset of DHS, there were multiple human resource systems, multiple procurement systems, and different approaches toward the budget as well as the creation of different digital and cyber divisions. The organizational tasks were astounding. Had DHS been a series of merging businesses, by the time they received regulatory approval, they would have had more than a year to sort out all the issues associated with merging a large organization. Unfortunately DHS had less than 90 days to sort those same issues out with a staff of over 180,000 personnel and at the same time we had to fill vacancies and build out policies. I think that business line integration of the Department continues to this day. Given these challenges, the defensive role that DHS plays in combating terrorist threats is a vital one, despite the challenges that remain in making the Department a more complete entity.

One of the roles of the Department was to focus on the private sector, because the private sector bears the brunt of both man-made and natural hazards. Do you think that the Department’s current initiatives have been sufficient in increasing the resiliency of the private sector to all these hazards or is there more work to do? And if there is more work to be done, is there a structure that should be put in place that is different than the public/private partnerships that are currently in place?

TR: The term “public/private partnership” is very much a refrain that political figures use on a fairly regular basis and I happen to believe that public/private partnerships, if structured around mutual goals and mutual responsibility are far more effective than either the government or the private sector working independently. Let me give an example: we wanted to expedite through-put across the Detroit/Ontario border region and there were many complaints about infrastructure. Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, he’s from the Department in charge of private sector collaboration, sat down with the private sector and facilitated a change in delivery schedules, customs and border protections in the toll booths, in order to make change work.

However, if you are trying to combat terrorism, one of your largest most significant concerns is sharing information. Information sharing is still a challenge, although not so much DHS’ challenge because DHS is really a consumer of intelligence. DHS doesn’t generate intelligence, so DHS can’t be blamed for not dispersing information they don’t know. DHS needs to receive information about potential attacks from other government agencies, alphabet agencies, and other resources. There are still too many occasions when federal government agencies do not share information about a potential physical attack such as the Boston marathon attack with the private sector.

So public/private partnerships work, if they are managed effectively toward mutually beneficial outcomes and are far more effective than either organization working on its own. Ultimately, I think that DHS, and the rest of the government channeling information through DHS, still has a lot of work to do in building stronger partnerships with the private sector.