Tom Ridge: On the Hot Seat

Former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge talks about holding one of the most demanding jobs in government.

by / May 31, 2007

Think you have it tough at work?

What if your job entailed consolidating more than 20 federal agencies into one super-department -- to protect every man, woman and child in the United States from a terrorist attack -- all while under the glare of constant national media attention? 

That was the task facing Tom Ridge for the better part of four years. 

Just days after 9/11, President George Bush plucked Ridge from the Pennsylvania statehouse and put him in charge of the nation's homeland security efforts. 

Ridge spent two years as Bush's homeland security adviser. In 2003, he was appointed homeland security director and charged with turning 22 independent agencies into the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The largest federal government reorganization in 50 years created a behemoth Cabinet agency comprising more than 180,000 employees. 

Ridge left the post in 2005 with bipartisan praise for taking on a nearly impossible assignment under trying circumstances -- but was also criticized for not fighting hard enough for bigger homeland security budgets. 

"Tom Ridge is a decent man and a fine public servant but unfortunately was not given the leeway or resources to tighten up homeland security in the way it should be done," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told CNN when Ridge stepped down.


The Right Idea
Today, the DHS is still a work in progress. The department -- which includes the formerly independent Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- came under withering criticism for its role in the bungled Hurricane Katrina response. And state and local officials continue to complain about a lack of guidance from the DHS on critical issues such as communications interoperability. 

Ridge -- now senior adviser to Deloitte's state government practice and a member of Home Depot's board of directors -- maintains the premise behind creating the DHS was sound. 

"I think it was an excellent idea. It's the right combination of organizations," he said. "But it's still an organization that's maturing in its structure, and it's still subject to change." 

Some have called the DHS too big for its own good, but Ridge said federal officials exercised restraint in choosing what agencies to blend into the new department. "They didn't include the intelligence community, nor should they. They didn't put the FBI in, nor should they," he said. "So it's amazing what we chose not to put in there." 


FEMA's Future
One agency that unquestionably belongs under the DHS umbrella is FEMA, according to Ridge. Given the federal government's woefully inadequate response to Katrina victims, many argued for returning the emergency management agency to an independent status.

Ridge, who left the DHS six months before Katrina, questioned why federal officials didn't move recovery resources into place before the storm hit. But repositioning FEMA as an independent entity now would only result in needless duplication of effort, he said.

"If you didn't have an emergency management organization within DHS, you'd build one, and you don't need two," he explained. 

Ridge is encouraged by the actions of new FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison, chosen last year to replace former Director Michael Brown, who came to personify FEMA's inept Katrina response. 

"I'm a big fan of Dave Paulison. He has built an extraordinarily talented team to deal with the administration and logistics," Ridge said. 


Politics and Technology
Known as an aggressive technology proponent during his six years as Pennsylvania governor, Ridge said some of his toughest DHS challenges were IT management issues familiar to any government CIO. 

"Our CIO had an enormous task to try to integrate IT systems among these agencies. We discussed bringing all IT money into headquarters and decided that would be political suicide. Congress would have found a way to take a substantial chunk from it because they like to cut headquarters' budgets, notwithstanding the impact. So the challenge of our CIO at the time was complicated because of the political environment." 

That contrasted starkly, Ridge said, to his ability to cut through such logjams as Pennsylvania's chief executive. 

Broad power and fat state budgets give current administrations the wherewithal to address vital issues. The question, according to Ridge, is whether governors will take the chance. 

"In light of more favorable fiscal circumstances around the country, governors have the opportunity to be very creative, very innovative and very entrepreneurial in their approaches. Whether they seize those opportunities or not ... varies with the personality of the governor, and the priorities that they and their legislatures set. But I think it's a very exciting time to be governor."