Coordination and Cooperation: Evaluating Whole-of-Government Response

– Executive Summary

Problem Statement:

Congress formed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to protect the nation’s people, infrastructure, and borders. The DHS comprises over 240,000 employees in 22 separate agencies, making it one of the largest agencies in the executive branch.[1] During national or international crises and disasters the DHS develops and implements response plans that coordinate the strengths of each agency. Doing so requires the agencies to develop and implement a command-and-control structure that maximizes combined strengths for a multi-agency response.

As the nation manages many major incidents of increasing complexity, requiring assets and capabilities from multiple agencies, responding agencies’ abilities to complete their core mission is diminished. Further compounding the challenge presented by the increasing demands is the lack of formalized structure that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of each responding agency. Because of this lack of a formalized structure, each response is unique which reduces the ability of leaders to determine best practices. These factors suggest that a group with members representing each component agency would be best suited to oversee future responses.

Cases Reviewed:

The thesis examines three cases that required a whole-of-government response across multiple agencies, Hurricane Harvey, Operation Allies Welcome (OAW) and the 2010 Chilean Mining Rescue. Using a comparative case analysis approach, this research compares DHS’s Hurricane Harvey response to OAW and the 2010 Chilean Mining Rescue. The researcher selected these cases because of their response type (natural disaster, humanitarian crisis, and technical rescue operation) to identify commonalities in response structures that span multiple professional disciplines.

Hurricane Harvey was the first major hurricane to strike the United States since 2005, causing major damage in the greater Houston, TX area and severe flooding and property damage in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. FEMA used the National Response Framework developed after Hurricane Katrina, activating the Emergency Support Functions to mobilize personnel from across DHS. Despite the availability of many DHS resources, responding personnel were forced into roles that did not maximize their primary skill sets, causing confusion and inefficacy, especially during the response phase. Bureaucratic obstacles surrounding the integration of multiple agencies and jurisdictions in to a cohesive effort, and the lack of coordination between the responding Federal, State, and local agencies created inefficiencies which ultimately slowed the response.

Unlike a natural disaster, OAW was a humanitarian crisis where thousands of refugees needed immediate evacuation from Afghanistan and resettlement assistance in the United States. To accomplish this massive undertaking, DHS was named the Unified Command Group (UCG) lead agency to bring together personnel from across the federal government. At a national command level, the UCG streamlined decision-making at the Department level, but at the individual processing centers, organizations did not work in a unified or coordinated fashion and  personnel had to perform secondary functions.

The researcher analyzed the  2010 Copiapó mining disaster to provide a comparative perspective because of this response’s similarity in scope, the Whole of Government (WoG) nature of the response, and the 90 days in duration like Hurricane Harvey. This scenario used rapid teaming to respond quickly to events as they unfolded, empowering decision-makers at all levels of the response and taking ownership of public communication. Further, this example provides additional techniques adaptable to situations that the United States will likely face in the future, such as maximizing public-private partnerships rather than relying solely on the public sector.

Recommendations:

First, the researcher recommends DHS identify a team of senior leaders representing each component agency that will evaluate situations as they arise: this team should be empowered to allocate personnel, designate authorities, and communicate their vision across the government and with the public during times of crisis. This team should report directly to the DHS Secretary rather than leadership within their home agencies and should serve as the experts on the capabilities of their agency’s components and response readiness. The team’s ability to operate independently, free of interference from individual agencies, is critical to the success of future responses.

Second, during a WoG response, DHS should formalize the practice of delegating authorities between agencies. Doing so will streamline operational and logistical challenges by using the unique statutory authorities possessed by the agencies in the department. Granting authority to act in a different role is a long-standing practice in times of crisis, but it is not used as often as needed.

Third, DHS should identify personnel within each agency to serve as a ready, deployment force. This group would comprise personnel deployable on short notice anywhere in the United States or its Territories. This force should cross-train with other component agencies to foster critical understanding of everyone’s role in responses, develop relationships and build a common language for interagency collaboration.


[1] “About DHS,” Department of Homeland Security, accessed March 8, 2022, https://www.dhs.gov/about-dhs.

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