The Beltway folks in the know are now predicting that by the fall we will see a bill creating the Homeland Security Agency. What should worry all of us is just this: It is quite possible that the country could end up with more bureaucracy and less security, certainly in the short run. Meanwhile, the powers of the Executive branch will be extended even more than they already have been in the wake of 9/11.
We like to believe that by rationally moving boxes from one organizational chart to another, the outcome can be guaranteed. Thus, if we want to assure safety from terrorists, we grab all the bureaus and offices that work on "terrorist stuff," dump them together and call it "homeland security." Unfortunately, organizational life is never so simple. Moreover, by ignoring the life of institutions and focusing entirely on integrating similar functions into a better mousetrap, we court serious failure.
Consider: Not one of the agencies under consideration for merger does homeland security work all the time; indeed, some of the bureaus and offices within those agencies do homeland security work none of the time. By ignoring that reality, the homeland security umbrella may well cover multiple agencies -- but only parts of those agencies.
For example, the Coast Guard does homeland security work, but it also does search-and-rescue work. So some functions of the Coast Guard would move to homeland security, but not all. Yet inside the Coast Guard, the world isn't viewed as the sum of functions; it is viewed through institutional lenses. The Coast Guard is the Coast Guard -- and they're damn proud of it, too. Is it still the Coast Guard if you shave off some of it to a new department -- or if you leave it alone but give it split duties? By hiving off functions, we ignore the institution. By ignoring the institutions, we risk low morale and confusion.
All this takes me back some 20 years, when I was asked to look into a range of organizational problems besetting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is part of the Department of Commerce. NOAA had been created amid considerable fanfare: the ocean science and technology community thought it would be "A Wet NASA."
At the time of my study, NOAA had been in business for just a decade, and most assessments of it were less than complimentary. The consensus was that the agency had floundered. NOAA's most traditional mission was mapping, something it inherited from the agencies it replaced; scientists wanted it to get into "Deep Ocean Technology." But after 10 years, almost no progress had been made in the areas the creators of the agency had envisioned.
I recall an interview I had with a particularly exasperated chief scientist who was chafing under the new management, made up of people who used to drive boats around and map coastlines: "I ask them what they bring," he said. "Why they are in charge? And you know what they tell me? They tell me they bring 'leadership.' Leadership? What the hell is that!"
Clearly, driving boats around didn't qualify one to direct ocean science and engineering projects. But since those boat drivers were judged as the right agency to be remade for the job, that's exactly what happened. Here was a case where the new mission was overwhelmed by the inertia of the old institution. NOAA just would not -- could not -- change, no matter how many times it was ordered to. And the trouble, especially when you compare it to what's happening with homeland security, is that it took a decade for people to realize it wasn't working.
The agencies and bureaus under consideration for merging into homeland security will carry with them all the baggage that agency culture has provided. The FBI and the CIA, in particular, have rigidified institutional perspectives to serve as armor against any attempts at reform. An umbrella organization will be hard-pressed to penetrate them. On the other end of the spectrum, some politicians have called for starting over, arguing that the CIA, in particular, should have caught on to the 9/11 plot in time to stop it. While a restart could wipe the institutional slate clean, this approach may be on the wrong track, too.
Whatever method is chosen to protect Americans at home, neither the good nor the bad sides of institutions can be ignored. Creating a new and improved bureaucracy is an easy way to make us feel like we're fixing old bureaucracies. But the truth is, by failing to address those lingering issues, we may be just making things worse.