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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 35, No. 1 • January 13, 2003

The H.R. Doctor Is In

The Department of Homeland Insecurity forging one “nation” out of separate tribes

Many major public policies turn on human resources decisions. The impeachment of President Johnson — that’s Andrew, not Lyndon — developed out of a dispute over an employee termination. America’s second presidential impeachment also involved a personnel matter — actually a personal, personnel matter. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security was stalled for quite some time around personnel disputes involving entitlements in the Federal Civil Service.

At the moment, deep inside the bowels of the various agencies which are going to be merged into this new department rests an inherent and ironic insecurity.

What will my role be in the new department? Will the merger result in staff reductions or reductions in opportunities for promotions? There are many HR issues that will define whether this giant merger, or some might argue hostile takeover, will live up to the promises made in support of its creation. We all recognize that the stakes are very high.

An effective, integrated and innovative federal internal security organization that proves able to prevent even one repeat of the September 11 attack will more than justify the public policy decision to create and fund it.

However, there are key ingredients that help shape the success or failure of any organizational change in government or business, including the creation of a new organization, the consolidation of several older ones, or the elimination of a function.

The delivery of excellent service at the best price is not built around a patchwork quilt of individual territories and narrow loyalties.

For one thing, this is the merger of multiple tribes, which have grown to exist in separate bureaucratic worlds. Bureaucracies give rise to distinct tribes with their own power structures, loyalties, rituals, and probably secret handshakes. The tribes erect defensive screens to keep out members of other tribes and are always on alert, lest they be outdone in a budget hearing or in a legislative proposal. There is an eternal quest for appropriations to fund new equipment (aka, new toys) and a resistance to voluntarily sacrifice for a larger purpose.

These internal bureaucratic tendencies, however, come wrapped around rhetoric about loyalty and organizational sacrifice. Whether it is internal competition in a local government for limited additional revenue between a fire and police department, or between general fund and special funds such as utility funds or road funds, or whether it involves one union beating up another union in the quest for a better labor agreement, the reality is that this anthropologic notion of tribalism represents the major impediment to effective organizational integration.

It begins at the individual level where we all want to identify with a particular group or unit to which we can devote primary loyalty. It may be to a small work unit or a section, division or department. It begins with individuals feeling the need to apply for membership.

The underlying motivator and the underlying challenge for the leadership of the new department is to begin the career of a new employee by instilling a strong and immediate sense of higher-level loyalty. If this is not done by the organization overtly, forcefully and consistently, the individual employee will default to a struggle to retain loyalty and membership in the older tribe.

Of course, there will continue to be a Coast Guard and a Secret Service and an Immigration and Naturalization Service, but the tribalism that sometimes prevents them from effectively communicating with each other, sharing information and taking risks for a greater purpose will not be overcome.

The HR Doctor’s recently published article, Precious Moments Lost (available at, speaks to the new-employee orientation as a key management process. On a super scale, there needs to be a comprehensive program in the new department focusing on conveying and valuing the benefits of breaking down tribal barriers by appealing to the higher loyalties of the new concept shared by all of the employees in the new department.

That concept, in the HR Doctor’s opinion, should be guardianship. Every employee, not just the security guards at the front doors, needs to be thought of as a guardian.

One of the few tools available to overcome tribalism is the idea of an appeal to a higher loyalty. However, the appeal will not be successful if it is regarded as simply another public relations maneuver while day-to-day agency business rules or restrictions are allowed to continue. What is needed is an organization-wide unrelenting change in managerial and supervisory attitudes and practices.

The focus must be on the higher, commonly shared guardianship concept. A reward and value system must focus on improving communication of tribal loyalty.

This is the same recipe, which will work when agencies share resources and consolidate in the future. And yes, the pressures are increasing and the needs are compelling for local governments as well as the federal government to consolidate, to create consortia between agencies, to share resources, and for managers to look beyond the limited vision of narrow loyalties.

How many fire departments does it take to provide life safety protection in one county area? There are 24 in the HR Doctor’s home county. How many police agencies are needed to effectively combat crime? There are 28 in the HR Doctor’s home county.

The answer to these questions is not likely to be one. However, the delivery of excellent service at the best price is not built around a patchwork quilt of individual territories and narrow loyalties.

The Department of Homeland Security must initially confront and defeat its own internal insecurities before it will be a match for al Qaeda or the other future dangers which will confront our country.

Throughout American history, the appeal to a higher loyalty has made the difference in our unique ability as a nation to come together and compromise for a common good. This need will be called up many times in the coming year not only with regard to counter-terrorism but with regard to growing caseloads, unfunded mandates, and insufficient revenues. A notion that “…my tribe is better than your tribe” is counter to our success. It must give way.

The HR Doctor wishes you all the best in balancing the tribal loyalties we each have against that imperative of the common good.

All the best,

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •