Building Leaders: Improving National Security Professional Development

Report Homeland Security

Building Leaders: Improving National Security Professional Development

December 14, 2010 4 min read Download Report

Authors: James Carafano and Jena Baker McNeill

Today, few individuals in government have all of the skills necessary to lead the national homeland security enterprise. In essence, Washington does not think very well.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—as well as other federal actors who work on security matters—like other arms of government, use tired thought processes to analyze public policy choices that simply do not reflect the new threat realities—which will not help the U.S. outthink its enemies. Absent extensive professional development in the realm of homeland security, it has and will continue to have a profound impact on the ability of the United States to protect, prepare for, and respond to terrorist attacks and other disasters.

The Problem

DHS has often been criticized for a seeming inability to come together as one cohesive organization—rather than the 22 separate entities that were brought together when the department was created. From an interagency perspective, the problem is worse. There is a serious interagency communication problem from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense, and the State Department to DHS. This problem has serious consequences, such as in the case of the Christmas Day bomb plot, when the State Department failed to contact DHS with information from a Nigerian man’s father that might have led to the arrest of the would-be bomber.

New dangers, such as cyber threats, require technological expertise from a government that has never really done technology well—and has recognized that it has an intellect gap, with not enough individuals with the skills and expertise to meet the growing cyber threat. Furthermore, the cyber problem requires a cross-government approach that allows government actors to share necessary information without compromising the security of the information.

An Interagency Solution

The U.S. military faced similar professional development challenges in building a cadre of joint leaders and officers competent in multi-service operations involving two or more of the armed services. The Goldwater–Nichols Act of 1986 mandated a solution that required officers to have a mix of joint education, assignments, and accreditation by a board of professionals in order to be eligible for promotion to general officer rank. Goldwater–Nichols is widely credited with the successes in joint military operations from Desert Storm to the war on terrorism.

In this way, national security professionalism should be a core competence of government. The professionals that lead the effort must have four essential skills:

  1. Familiarity with a number of diverse security-related disciplines (such as health care, law enforcement, immigration, and trade) and practice in interagency operations with different government agencies, the private sector, and international partners;
  2. Competence in crisis action and long-term strategic planning;
  3. A sound understanding of federalism, the free-market economy, constitutional rights, and international relations; and
  4. The knowledge, skills, and attributes to conduct 21st century cutting-edge analysis, such as net assessment and complex systems.

The lessons learned from the original Goldwater–Nichols Act are similarly appropriate and can be used now to improve competency at DHS: The need for education, assignment, and accreditation can be applied to developing professionals for critical interagency national security activities and can help the federal government produce professionals that have these skills:

  • Education. A program of education, assignment, and accreditation that cuts across all levels of government and the private sector with national and homeland security responsibilities has to start with professional schools specifically designed to teach interagency skills. While the resident and non-resident programs of many university and government schools and training centers can and should play a part in homeland security and interagency education, these institutions should form the taproot of a national effort with national standards.
  • Assignment. Qualification would also require interagency assignments in which individuals can practice and hone their skills. These assignments should be at the “operational” level, where leaders learn how to make things happen, not just set policies. Identifying the right organizations and assignments and ensuring that they are filled by promising leaders should be a priority.
  • Accreditation. Accreditation and congressional involvement are crucial to ensuring that programs are successful and sustainable. Before leaders are selected for critical (non-politically appointed) positions in national and homeland security, they should be accredited by a board of professionals in accordance with broad guidelines established by Congress. Congress should require creation of boards that encourage the establishment of educational requirements and accredit institutions that are needed to teach national security and homeland security, screen and approve individuals to attend schools and fill interagency assignments, and certify individuals as interagency-qualified leaders.

The first step toward any of these goals should be to establish or assign congressional committees in the House and Senate with narrow jurisdictions over key education, assignment, and accreditation interagency programs. While some may be concerned about the increase in oversight over DHS, such committees should be given very limited jurisdiction.

An Existing Solution to a New Problem

The answer to DHS’s professional development needs is not reorganizing the federal government or redistributing federal responsibilities. Congress should focus on how to make the interagency process more responsive in the operational environment. This means a combination of building the professional workforce of skilled analysts and decision makers and giving them places to learn, teach, and practice their craft.

Jena Baker McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Deputy Director of the Davis Institute and Director of the Allison Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Jim Carafano
James Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

Jena Baker McNeill
Jena Baker McNeill

Senior Associate Fellow