As federal officials work to get their arms around the giant Department of Homeland Security (DHS), state and locals wonder if needed DHS restructuring is imminent, and whether it will result in more and better guidance, including an improved mechanism for alerting states and locals of possible threats.

DHS officials say much has been done since the department's creation two years ago, but acknowledge that there are still huge mountains to climb. They say restructuring is taking place and will continue to occur.

The department made strides by combining the Office of Domestic Preparedness with the Office of State and Local Government Coordination. The new Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness (SLGCP) should simplify the application and award process, and provide more efficient assistance to states by integrating the numerous federal preparedness initiatives and programs into a single source. It is hoped that the SLGCP will help develop a uniform homeland security policy to be carried out by states.

James Carafano, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs regarding a special report, Rethinking the Department of Homeland Security, in which he and others outline steps that could help the DHS become a more efficient, effective body.

The report urges reform and restructuring within the DHS, saying the organization is tethered by bureaucratic layers and turf warfare, and lacks a structure that yields policy.

The report's recommendations include establishing an undersecretary for protection and preparedness to help coordinate and communicate homeland security policies and strategies with states or regions. Further, the report calls for replacing the national color-coded alert with regional alerts that provide more critical data -- something the DHS is working on in conjunction with the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).

The regional warnings could be done after comprehensive risk-level rankings of all regions in the country take place. The rankings should address population, threat assessment, number of "important" sites and level of vulnerability. Along with the rankings, the DHS should establish capabilities-based performance standards and response for state and local authorities.

Carafano said there was debate within the DHS about those and other measures, but most are up in the air until the new secretary, Michael Chertoff, takes over. "Once [former DHS Secretary Tom] Ridge announced his resignation, all that was basically put on hold," Carafano said, adding that these issues will have to be confronted by incoming homeland security Secretary Michael Chertoff

Some, like Carafano, fear that time is of the essence, not only because of possible threats to the country, but also because of the belief that once a bureaucracy becomes entrenched, it's difficult to change. The report's message is clear: Fix things now or live with the mistakes for a long time.

National Response Plan

What can't be foreseen is whether the new secretary will have more authority than Ridge and whether existing turf wars can be settled. The report suggests the need for a "policy apparatus," which would include a deputy secretary and a strengthened management directorate. As it stands, the department is but a collection of separate components under one organizational umbrella, according to the report.

A DHS spokesperson said some or all of these considerations are in the works or being reviewed. Valerie Smith, assistant press secretary at the DHS, pointed to the recently unveiled National Response Plan as evidence that the DHS is working on the problems and developing plans that can be used "far into the future."

Smith said the National Response Plan and the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a set of best practices guidelines developed by the DHS, are a start to the development of standards

Jim McKay, Editor  |  Editor