May 2016
Issue Map
The Public Manager

A United Effort at DHS

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Homeland security is a big job, and Russell C. Deyo wants to get that big job done by making collaboration essential to agency culture.

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Russell C. Deyo is undersecretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security. As the number-three person in the department, he exercises authority over all DHS management programs, products, and workforce. He came to the department in 2015 after 27 years at Johnson & Johnson. In this conversation with The Public Manager, he offers his vision for collaboration at DHS.

Could you give an overview of what collaboration means at DHS?

Collaboration is absolutely imperative for DHS to fulfill its mission. I'm talking about collaboration in every aspect, across the department, as well as with the public, private industry, and foreign, state, local, and tribal governments—virtually everyone. We interact with the public more than any other agency. Collaboration must be built into the fabric of how we do things. It has to be embedded in our culture, because we can't succeed without it.

I'll give you an example. One of DHS's missions is to "secure and manage our borders." Just one element of securing the border is to prevent international criminal cartels from bringing drugs into the country. I recently visited the port city of San Diego and saw firsthand the high level of collaboration between the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration Customs Enforcement, other federal agencies, and state and local law enforcement. They're working together every day with a common focus, sharing information and taking advantage of their collective resources to protect the border. Their joint effort is essential to fulfilling the mission of securing our borders.

Another DHS mission is to "safeguard and secure cyberspace." This is a red-hot issue now. DHS's National Protection and Programs Directorate is not only responsible for helping all other federal agencies ensure cybersecurity, but it also works with private industry. If there is information about an intrusion into a company's IT system in California, for instance, promptly sharing that information with others at risk is vital.

You mentioned government agencies; state, local, and tribal governments; and private sector—all of the critical infrastructure industries. I'm interested in your definition of collaboration in that context. Is it somewhere between autocratic authority on one hand, and just pleading for compliance on the other?

Collaboration can be hard. In my view, the best kind of ­collaboration—and the kind that we strive for at DHS—is where there is a visible mutual benefit. If different individuals or groups see how working together drives shared purpose and success, they are happy to participate. We need to break down barriers and have shared common goals to encourage this collaboration.

To borrow a phrase from the private sector, it is helpful to have "value-add" from sharing. It is also helpful to recognize and reward individuals for their collaboration. When I was at Johnson & Johnson, we encouraged U.S.-operating companies to both save money and use vehicles that were environmentally sound. So we implemented a strategic sourcing initiative to collectively acquire vehicles for all U.S. sales forces. There was immediate benefit from the cost reduction for the companies, and hybrids were made available as an option. Win, win.

Similarly, within the government, the benefits and rewards for collaboration need to be understood and recognized, and I believe they are.

What part does collaboration play in DHS's Unity of Effort initiative?

For me, this is the primary focus of collaboration at DHS. Thirteen years ago, the federal government brought together 22 components to create the department. These components could not be more different: Some are military, some are law enforcement, some are civilian. Each entity has its own history, own culture, own processes, and own systems.

Two years ago, DHS launched Unity of Effort to maximize the collaboration across these components, where it makes sense, to further the mission. It's a major undertaking that starts with high-level, cross-component management councils. For starters, there is the Senior Leadership Council (SLC) led by Secretary Jeh Johnson, with the heads of all the operational components, and other senior leaders. We meet at least once a month to discuss strategy and high-priority operational issues. There is also a Deputy's Management Action Group (DMAG), chaired by the deputy secretary, which implements the Senior Leadership Council's cross-component initiatives.

I also have implemented Unity of Effort within the Management Directorate. I held several off-site meetings with my direct reports to establish integrated priorities, which showed our dependency on each other to be successful. I shared these goals at the SLC to make sure we had alignment with components. For example, take our work on shortening the hiring process. This involves our security group, HR, the individual components, hiring managers, and line executives, all working together to make it happen.

We also have collaborated to develop metrics for measuring success. We have metrics that are focused on joint behavior—and joint collaboration. So the Management Directorate leadership team, made up of all the lines of business, gets together at least monthly to see what's on track and what's not.

I will tell you, everyone is quite candid. They're not afraid to disagree with me, which is great. So we look at cybersecurity, improving the acquisition process, working closely with industry, and modernizing our finance systems. In other words, the things that will fundamentally make DHS better. We are working hard, and collectively, to achieve our priorities and make them sustainable.

Can you share any other examples of where DHS is collaborating on issues internal to the organization, and that also serve as the connective tissue for the larger department?

There are plenty. Take the mission of protecting the southern border. Joint task forces involving Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and the Coast Guard are working together to achieve this mission with cross-component collaboration ensuring the necessary resources and capabilities are in place to achieve success.

And there's no better example of a collaborative group than the Joint Requirements Council. Leaders from the components openly discuss and determine what capabilities DHS needs to fulfill specific mission requirements. They collectively identify broad requirements of the equipment or service that needs to be acquired. In the past, acquisitions would have occurred component by component. This is a very positive change.

What we're doing within the Management Directorate is also part of the broader Unity of Effort initiative. For our mission-support functions like IT, finance, and human resources, each function has councils with individual representation from the components and headquarters. How we're managing cyber­security after the OPM breach is a good example of this. People were focused on cybersecurity before, but now there is cross-­collaboration in the IT space with a common format and common metrics. Building on that strong work, there is collaboration between these communities on how to upgrade our IT systems, rather than each component working independently. We can now focus on the department's highest IT priorities and ensure appropriate funding is provided and progress is made.

A more public-facing example of collaboration is the collaborative security effort at large events such as the Super Bowl or the pope's visit. Dozens of federal agencies contributed to the security measures seen and unseen in connection with the Super Bowl. Within the Department of Homeland Security itself, the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration Customs Enforcement, Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, our Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and our National Protection and Programs Directorate helped contribute to the security of this event. Just this one event shows how collaboration is essential to keeping America safe.

The point is that all the pieces come together. Collaboration drives high-level leadership discussions, which drives high-level business processes.

Can you take this from the strategic to the tactical? How would a GS-12, 13, or 14 go about preparing for collaboration?

A good way to look at this is to consider the decision-making process. From my personal experience, much better decisions are made in a collaborative group than by an individual sitting alone in his or her office. When you're alone, you're not taking into account all the information you probably need. Worse, you're not leveraging the benefit of having a group around the table—a group with specific expertise and diverse perspectives. In addition, when you collaborate on decision making, you build buy-in and gain alignment. And sometimes someone will have a really innovative idea that changes the dynamic.

To that end, real collaboration means that you have a culture where people are invited to disagree. Some in government may find this hard because the idea of respecting superiors is entrenched; there is less willingness to challenge superiors. Ultimately, you want to create a culture of people who raise ideas.

So what do you think you could do better? What does the future look like for DHS and collaboration?

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We will continue to collaborate. But before going into what we can do to be better, I want to share with you some success stories. One revolves around strategic sourcing. DHS saved $450 million in 2015 because of the components and small business associations working together. Everyone saw the benefit. In another example, a collaborative effort between the Israeli government and an Israeli nonprofit helped DHS develop tools for first responders to better deal with crisis.

Where do we need to do better? Most importantly, we need to make sure that the collaboration improvements built into Unity of Effort are sustainable. It needs to become part of our daily business, and it needs to become the routine way we do business. We need to make the processes as simple as possible.

We'll get better at it, but it takes time and effort. We're seeing this with our Science and Technology Directorate. It has created integrated product teams that work closely with the individual components to ensure that the innovative work being done directly supports the mission of the components.

One area where we're intent on making improvements is employee satisfaction. When we look at the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, we see that employees feel that their jobs matter, but they don't necessarily feel that the culture supports them the way it should. We're working on this issue with an employee engagement committee that is sharing ideas and best practices across the different components. In addition, each component has its own customized plan to drive engagement. It's hard to turn morale issues around overnight. But we are absolutely dedicated to improvement, and I think our approach will bring value.

Do you find that budget constraints tend to thwart collaboration?

Budget constraints are a reality in both the public and private sectors. But the power of collaboration is that leaders can prioritize because there's alignment on the most critical needs. We have made real improvements in this area thanks to our finance group. I would say one of the great things about the DMAG, for example, is that there are candid conversations and mission-focused discussions about budget. Within the constraints of the complex budget process, we have one component saying, "I can provide this, if you will do this." The result is real, mission-focused budget discussions.

So, what do I do if I'm a manager and I want to achieve Unity of Effort with colleagues who may have different interests finding that common mission?

Be open-minded to new ideas and have candid discussions. Be mission focused and objectively try to find the best outcome to fulfill the mission needs. Share the reward. Know it's not always easy, but collaboration leads to better government.

Training can play a role in advancing collaboration and getting everyone on the same page. We have training at all levels for collaboration, interpersonal skills, and leadership. And I have to say, our training for acquisition professionals is a particularly good example of fostering collaboration because it allows for employees to gain experience in more than one component of DHS. Finally, every new hire watches a video on a day in the life of DHS. So, someone who just joined FEMA can learn about what his or her colleagues in other components are doing.

Do you have a final piece of advice for a government manager on how to foster collaboration in their organization?

I'll give two. First, remember that people who work for you are watching the example you set. You can have a positive impact by being the kind of leader you would want to work for. There's nothing better than people seeing how you collaborate with your team, and with others, to deliver on the critical work you're doing.

My other piece of advice is to create a culture where people appreciate collaboration, and thank them for what they're doing. Have an atmosphere where people trust each other and enjoy working together. Work should be enjoyable, despite the stress and challenges. The work we do is critical and serious. Working collaboratively with trust and respect for others reduces the stress.

As government employees, we're doing truly meaningful work. If you have that, and you like the people you work with, you're way ahead of the game. And when you see that you're making a positive impact, you have the right to both smile and hold your head up high.

About the Author

Ronald Sanders is a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton, and the firm’s first fellow. In that capacity, Ronald helps the firm’s most strategic clients deal with pressing human capital and organizational transformation challenges. Ronald joined Booz Allen after more than 37 years in federal service. Over the course of his career, he served as the U.S. Intelligence Community’s first chief human capital officer,  U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s first chief human resources officer, and the U.S. Department of Defense’s director of civilian personnel and equal employment opportunity. His most recent book is Tackling Wicked Government Problems: A Practical Guide for Enterprise Leaders.

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