The Quadrennial Homeland Security Review: A Vital Tool for the Obama Administration

Report Homeland Security

The Quadrennial Homeland Security Review: A Vital Tool for the Obama Administration

December 12, 2008 18 min read Download Report
Jena Baker McNeill
Jena Baker McNeill
Senior Associate Fellow

Jena Baker McNeill is a homeland security policy analyst.

Election Day has come and gone. While homeland security did not play a major role in the 2008 presiden­tial election, Americans must not forget that the impor­tance of keeping the nation safe does not diminish in the transition from one Administration to the next. Homeland security is different from many of the issues in the political marketplace because if homeland secu­rity fails, lives are lost and all the other issues are imperiled. Protecting Americans from hostile enemies, preparing for and responding to natural disasters, and securing the country's borders should be less about pol­itics and more about implementing sound approaches that keep our country free, safe, and prosperous.

The best way to ease this transition is through the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR). The QHSR will be a new comprehensive reviewby the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including recommendations for future action.

A Trip Through DHS History

The QHSR was passed into law in the 9/11 Com­mission Implementation Bill of 2007.[1]1 The review requires DHS to look back and evaluate progress made since the agency was formed and prepare a long-term strategy based on these assessments.[2] The basic ele­ments of the review include:

  • A strategic assessment of what has been accom­plished since the inception of DHS;
  • A review of national readiness;
  • A review of planning, programs, budget execution systems, and internal processes; and
  • Identification of successes and challenges to DHS programs.[3]

According to the mandate, this process must be completed (meaning a final report submitted to Congress) by December 31, 2009, and as its name implies, repeated every four years.[4] This review is the first of its kind for DHS, and the most recent similar review, the Second Stage Review, occurred in 2005. But the 2005 review focused on the orga­nizational aspects of DHS and did not delve deeper into the department's successes and challenges, nor did it consider the "issues of strategy, policy, pro­cess, program and budget."[5] While the imple­mentation of recommendations after the Second Stage Review made great strides toward unifying DHS as a department, such as focusing FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) on its core competencies, it also produced several unwanted side effects: Congress essentially embarked on a reorganization spree, changing the organization of DHS numerous times--decreasing agency morale, breeding confusion, and preventing effective policy implementation.[6]

The QHSR is modeled after the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), in which the Department of Defense (DOD) undertakes an assessment of defense strategy, and articulates long-term plans for defense every four years.[7] The QDR has been successful for the DOD. The 2006 QDR, for instance, concluded that the Special Forces should be expanded by one-third.[8] Because of these recommendations, the ex­pansion became a reality, and the Special Forces are fulfilling vital roles in the war on terrorism.[9]

The similarities between the DOD and DHS seem to indicate that DHS would experience similar gains from undertaking this type of review. Both departments have similar missions--protecting Americans from our enemies--and similar organi­zational structures--big bureaucracies with a num­ber of different cultures under one tent.[10] In fact, when the DOD was first created in 1942, it experi­enced a similar form of shell shock when it brought together various branches of the military.[11] The individual armed forces originally fought this over­arching structure, but since then, the DOD has cre­ated a unified defense culture that brings togetherthese forces in order to achieve the mission of pro­tecting the country, while maintaining respect for the traditions of individual military branches.[12] If this experience is any guide, the QHSR will assist DHS as it attempts to create its own common cul­ture and meet its missions.

A Necessary Tool for the New Administration

The reasoning behind the QHSR is simple--it is important to look at accomplishments, take lessons learned, and craft future strategy on the basis of these lessons. A lack of smart, strategic long-term planning can translate into security loopholes that jeopardize the safety and security of Americans. The same can be said for mandates that involve a mis­appropriation of resources or programs or policies that tackle a problem from the wrong direction. In addition to this benefit, the QHSR also helps:

  • Create a Common Culture. Perhaps the most important benefit of the QHSR is the opportunity to create a common culture at DHS by identifying gaps in agency coordination. A common culture is important because it provides a universal oper­ating language with which to communicate effec­tively throughout the department, and allows DHS employees to work together as a team, as well as fully understand the agencies' missions. When DHS was created in 2002, it brought together 22 agencies, all with their own individ­ual cultures, and this division has created bureau­cratic obstacles.[13] Creating a common culture does not mean throwing away institutional knowledge, individual cultures, or simply dis­carding the past, but rather creating a new culture that can rise above the various components to facilitate communications on a cross-DHS basis.
  • Define the Broader Homeland Security Enter­prise. The QHSR also provides an opportunity to look at what is contributing to the broader homeland security enterprise. All too often we think of homeland security in terms of the Department of Homeland Security and forget that homeland security is much broader than one agency.[14] Homeland security involves con­nections between ordinary citizens, state and local governments, the private sector, and the various agencies across the federal government. It is not only about organization, it is about a common goal: to keep America free, safe, and prosperous--ensuring that the United States can continue to function in the face of disaster.[15] The QHSR can help the federal governmenttarget weaknesses in this enterprise and define how DHS should adapt to meet these requirements.
  • Assess Return on Investment. The QHSR will also help DHS examine the quality of security Americans are gaining from the dollars their gov­ernment is spending. All too often, homeland security is measured too quantitatively--focused, for example, on the number of border patrol agents or the number of shipping containers scanned. This measurement relies, however, on the false assumption that more "stuff" equals more security. In reality, the U.S. needs a risk-based approach to homeland security, and the government should be asking, "How much addi­tional security are we gaining from X?" This risk-based approach ensures added security with added efficiency. The federal government has given at least $23 billion in grants to state and local governments to developcounterterrorism and response capabilities.[16] But the current pro­gram is not tailored to gaps in capabilities nor is it completely based on risk.[17] So, although states may have purchased a large number of resources, they are not receiving a return on investment because there is no additional security. Needs are left unmet and highest-risk locations still lack the necessary resources to combat terrorism. The case for an accounting of resources is all the more apparent in these troubled economic times, where a lean government is crucial.

Wait and See

Undoubtedly, as any Administration would, the Obama Administration will project confidence regarding its ability to keep the United States safe from terrorist attacks and natural disasters. President Obama will be urged bysome in Congress to only look forward, ignoring the past completely. But homeland security needs and requirements have changed drastically over the last decade. Dismissing Bush Administration results as useless information would be a serious detriment to the national security.

During the 1990s, America was relatively naive about the threat of terrorism. The attacks of 9/11 had not occurred. There was no DHS, no war on terrorism, and no Hurricane Katrina. The Immigra­tion and Naturalization Service (INS) still existed and FEMA was its own entity. Because of the vast number of changes that have occurred, the Obama Administration will possess little in the way of institutional knowledge. James Lee Witt, head of FEMA under President Clinton, and one of Sena­tor Barack Obama's homeland security advisors during the 2008 presidential election campaign, has called repeatedly for FEMA to be removed from DHS leadership and returned to its former Cabinet-level status.[18] But Witt has not been inside the halls of FEMA as an appointee since the 1990s, and much progress has occurred. The QHSR may paint a very different picture of what successes could be obtained from moving FEMA from DHS to an independent agency. This review gives the Obama Administration an opportunity to gain this institu­tional knowledge, as well as a clear understanding of the organization, structure, and major programs handled by DHS. The review will provide a set path by which to reach out to Bush Administration offi­cials for knowledge and lessons learned.

The Obama Administration should use the QHSR as the catalyst for its homeland security policy--not the other way around. The new Administration should not change homeland security merely for the sake of change, and the QHSR must not be used as a politically driven showcase of departmental mis­takes. Such politicking would simply be a threat to national security, stand in the way of real progress, and ignore the successes that should be continued under the next Administration.

The best course for the Obama Administration may be to take a wait-and-see approach, focusing on taking only absolutely necessary steps and wait­ing until the QHSR is released in December 2009 before making major changes at DHS. This "mora­torium" should also include not tinkering with the department's organization.[19] Such a commitment will obviously be difficult for political appointees looking to make a name for themselves; everyone wants to look like a reformer when he or she assumes a new position in a new Administration-- but our nation's security depends on everyone's restraint and diligence.

The Countdown to the QHSR

DHS is currently in the planning stages of the QHSR. But issues remain that could jeopardize the successful implementation of the review: A new team might attempt to start over, thinking that for the QHSR to be successful, all planning and organization must come from them. This would be a big mistake. It would restart the clock on QHSR implementation and might stymie it permanently. The Obama team should instead work with the outgoing Administration to ensure implementation of QHSR recommendations, and the Bush team should be careful not to craft the QHSR on the basis of pre-set outcomes.[20]

DHS has requested $1.65 million from Congress to complete the review.[21] Coupled with this request is an appeal for two new full-time employees dedi­cated to the QHSR, bringing the total number of staff dedicated to the project to six.[22] The QHSR will not be successful if it is late or incomplete because of a lack of staff. More in-house people are needed because the nature of an introspective review such as the QHSR is that it should be conducted by the peo­ple who have been and will be involved in the projects under examination. These people know best why a program did or did not work, and what lessons can be learned, as opposed to outside entities that might attempt to color the department's progress in more sweeping generalities. Further­more, the process of the QHSR gives the new Obama appointees an excellent way to learn the ins and outs of DHS while developing future strategy for the department. However, it might be lean times staff­ing-wise when President-elect Obama takes office because most appointees probably will not be con­firmed until around spring and summer 2009.[23] This means that a small number of employees will have to be diligent to guide the QHSR.

Back to the Future

All too often, projects similar to the QHSR be­come just another deliverable with the multiple other reading materials for the Administration and Congress. This fate for the QHSR would be a waste of taxpayer dollars and would do nothing to improve DHS in the long run. Ensuring that the QHSR is an influential document will require several actions:

  • Full Funding of the QHSR. Congress should fund the QHSR fully. Without adequate funding, the QHSR will either becompleted late, or the review and implementation of its recommenda­tions will not occur at all. Current funding levels are not sufficient to implement the QHSR.

  • Leadership by Senior DHS Leaders. Successful completion of the QHSR will require support from the very highest levels of the Department of Homeland Security.[24] If senior leaders are en­gaged, monitor progress, and make the QHSR a high priority from day one, it will be completed successfully by December 2009 so that the recom­mendations can be implemented shortly there­after. For senior leaders looking to shine, taking leadership on the QHSR is an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to the efficacy of the department. This leadership will trickle down into all levels of DHS, inspiring political and ca­reer staff alike to take pride in the QHSR.

    Such guidance by senior leaders will also ensure that the QHSR is not simply a blip on the DHS radar and continues into the future. Developing future leaders that understand the importance of strategic planning can be accomplished by cre­ating a cadre of homeland security professionals who through accreditation, training, and assign­ment are well versed is the needs of tomorrow's homeland security enterprise.[25]

  • Outside Help Encouraged, but Well Defined. Given the resource constraints of the QHSR, it would be foolish to assume that DHS can com­plete the QHSR alone. DHS should engage both internal and external stakeholders before, after, and during the process, and effectively use con­tractors to fill valuable support roles throughout.[26]

    The Bush Administration is currently forming an outside Advisory Board to assist in the QHSR process. DHS should look to the academic com­munity, trade associations, state and local gov­ernments, and various other homeland security stakeholders to identify successes and gaps in the current system, and to develop recommen­dations for the future. These outside stakehold­ers should be homeland security professionals from across the political spectrum.

    The nature of the QHSR does mean that it should be done largely in-house at DHS. But this does not mean that contractors do not have a role in the process. Contractors can assist DHS employ­ees so that they will have more time to concen­trate on the substantive portions of the QHSR. Contractors, however, should be used under clear budget limits, deadlines, and expectations. Ambig­uous contractor requirements were part of the problem behind a key DHS program--the Secure Border Initiative's SBInet, the technological frame­work for security at the Southern border--where fuzzy standards for progress led DHS to be sorely disappointed with the contractor's performance, delaying implementation of the framework and wasted considerable amounts of money.[27]

  • Prioritize State and Local Integration. One aspect that should be an integral part of the review is integration of state and local homeland security efforts into the broader homeland secu­rity framework. The review should not only ana­lyze state and local integration within DHS, but it should also examine how effectively state and local governments have been integrated into the overall homeland security enterprise. Effective homeland security begins at the grassroots level. For example, from a border security perspective, certain states have a significant stake in whether enforcement is successful and they have an incen­tive to make their communities safer. The federal government should not usurp the ability of states to take an individualized approach to disaster.

    DHS should look for avenues to put the states back in the driver's seat, reverting power back to these state and local governments. In areas where the federal government is necessary, state and local input is still vital. Here, the QHSR should focus on information-sharing and coor­dination with state and local entities.

  • Reform Congressional Oversight of Homeland Security. DHS and the broader homeland secu­rity enterprise are drastically different than when the agency was created. But congressional over­sight of homeland security has remained largely the same--to the detriment of DHS. The 108committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over DHS routinely batter the department.[28] These committees often issue conflicting demands, making successful policy execution difficult.[29] DHS is routinely dragged in front of a committee merely for the sake of making a political specta­cle of agency mistakes.

    Such harassment is unacceptable and hinders the success of the department, while jeopardiz­ing the security of Americans. Furthermore, the QHSR's recommendations will not receive effec­tive oversight if Congress continues to mis­manage its role. Congressional leaders need to consolidate congressional oversight of DHS into four standing committees, two in the House and two in the Senate (appropriations and authori­zation). It will not be easy, and will likely be unpopular, but it is the right decision.

With Great Hope

Many observers hope that the Obama Adminis­tration will see the value of the QHSR and use it to guide DHS through its very first transition between Administrations. Transition is not just about looking better than the previous Administration. A haphaz­ard changeover will do more than ruffle a few feath­ers or produce a couple of bureaucratic snafus. Its impact could be felt far beyond Washington--jeop­ardizing America's security for years to come.

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.

[1]Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, Public Law 110-53.

[2]Christine Wormuth, "The 2009 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review," testimony before Subcommittee on Management, Investment, and Oversight, Committee on Homeland Security, U.S. House of Representatives, July 30, 2008, at
 (November 18, 2008).

[3]U.S. Department of Homeland Security, "Report to Congress on Quadrennial Homeland Security Review Resource Plan," March 27, 2008, p. 2, at /static/reportimages/BB77E15632EA03A9F00ADFD8344478E6.pdf (November 18, 2008).

[4]Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, Public Law 110-53.

[5]Wormuth, "The 2009 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review," p. 2.

[6]David Heyman and James Jay Carafano, "Homeland Security 3.0: Building a National Enterprise to Keep America Free, Safe, and Prosperous," Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 23, September 18, 2008, p. 3, at

[7]Michèle A. Flournoy, "The Quadrennial Defense Review: A Model for the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review," testimony before the Committee on Homeland Security, U.S. House of Representatives, March 20, 2007, at
(November 18, 2008).

[8]U.S. Department of Defense, "Quadrennial Defense Review Report," February 6, 2006, p. 44, at
 (November 18, 2008).

[9]Donna Miles, "Quiet Professionals Continue Key Role in Terror War,", November 4, 2008, at
 (November 18, 2008).

[10]Wormuth, "The 2009 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review," p. 2.

[11]James R. Locher, III, Victory on the Potomac: The Goldwater-Nichols Act Unifies the Pentagon (College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press, 2002), pp. 15-18.

[12]Ibid., p. 16.

[13]Fact Sheet, "Leadership and Management Strategies for Homeland Security Merger," U.S. Department of Homeland Security, February 11, 2004, at (November 18, 2008).

[14]Heyman and Carafano, "Homeland Security 3.0," p. 4.

[15]Jena Baker McNeill, "Building Infrastructure Resiliency: Private Sector Investment in Homeland Security," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2184, September 23, 2008, p. 3, at

[16]Jena Baker McNeill, "Grants Should Not Be the Pork to Feed State Homeland Security Spending," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1995, July 16, 2008, at


[18]Paul Whyte, "Former Director wants FEMA out of Homeland Security," USA Today, March 25, 2005, at
 (November 2, 2008). See also Jena Baker McNeill, "Removing FEMA from DHS Would be a Terrible Mistake," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2071, September 22, 2008, at

[19]Heyman and Carafano, "Homeland Security 3.0," p. 3.

[20]Wormuth, "The 2009 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review," p. 5.



[23]Ibid., p. 3.

[24]Ibid., p. 6.

[25] James Jay Carafano, "Missing Pieces in Homeland Security: Interagency Education, Assignments, and Professional Accreditation," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 1013, October 16, 2006, at

[26]Wormuth, "The 2009 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review," p. 7.

[27] U.S. Government Accountability Office, "Secure Border Initiative: SBInet Planning and Management Improvements Needed to Control Risks," GAO-07-504T, February 27, 2007, pp. 5-7, at /static/reportimages/DDDD3DEC38F8CC5C1CCD09900E47EC22.pdf (November 18, 2008).

[28]Jena Baker McNeill, "Congressional Oversight in Dire Need of Overhaul," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2161, July 14, 2008, at



Jena Baker McNeill
Jena Baker McNeill

Senior Associate Fellow