Homeland Security Brain Drain?

The Department of Homeland Security is suffering the effects of a brain drain, reports USA Today‘s Mimi Hall. To even casual observers of DHS, the obvious rejoinder is that the key prerequisite for a brain drain was never established.

Regardless, the key vacancies include “top leaders in the department’s cyber-security, technology and disaster response divisions.” The problem, apparently, is that people with the skill sets to do those jobs can typically command much more money in the private sector. Plus, as Randall Larsen of the Institute for Homeland Security wonders, “Who’s going to give up a good job in the private sector to go into an organization that is criticized by the press and Congress and the American people?”

The obvious answer is to promote from within, a possibility not even addressed within the article. The very nature of a bureaucracy that it is a hierarchy where people move up a career ladder and receive periodic training and education. Indeed, every other department of government operates under the same salary restrictions as DHS and many of them nonetheless manage to attract and retain top-notch people.

The military and the judiciary are obvious examples. People endure incredible public scrutiny to become federal judges at salaries lower than attorneys at D.C.’s top law firms command right out of school. Less glamorously, the military manages to keep people around despite frequent uncontestable assignments to undesirable locations where people are trying to kill them. And DHS hardly requires more technical savvy than NSA or NASA.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I suspect that if you look closer you will find that many of those leaving DHS to work for companies that will interface with DHS. The only real attraction to working for DHS is as a job fair for finding the companies who need your skill set if you aren’t already in the circuit.

    I work for a small start up company that has working technology to all cell phones in a given area (whether its their home area, roaming or whatever) with either an SMS or audio alert. It can also be tuned to hit general people or only first responders or whatever. Think about that for being able to get EMS messages out. But we can’t seem to find the crack in the door at DHS to get a decent hearing. And we can use the technology for commercial uses, so why bother trying to wrestle with the bureaucracy?

  2. Stevely says:

    NASA and NSA are bad examples to use for attracting and retaining very smart people in the civil service. Both organizations have serious problems with this… and in the case of NASA (where my fiance works), the civil service ranks have been greatly thinned for well over the last decade. Many of the scientist jobs are already done by contractors. Our local NASA research center, Langley, can hire all of 10 civil servants this year.

    Yetanotherjohn makes a good point about people leaving the government to become government contractors. Down where I work (in the DoD), GS jobs are still sought after by most contractors, but now really only for the stability, most of the great bennies of the civil service having been gutted in recent years. If NSPS goes through in a form close to what Rumsfeld wants (the courts may rule otherwise), there really won’t be good reasons for staying in the civil service when you can earn more as a contractor and be subject to less shenanigans.

  3. DC Loser says:

    Stevely, you’re right about the jury being out about NSPS. There’s plusses and minuses both in the GS and contractor world. It’s just a matter of which one best fits your needs and career goals. As for DHS, the place has been a mess since it was stood up. The DoD don’t have anything near their problems getting people to work.

  4. Herb says:

    DHS, like every government bureaucracy is plagued with internal politics to the point that most good and well qualified people wont work for them.

    I submit that DHS has a major problem at the very top of the organization, brought on by its vast size. Congress has to take completely responsibility for the fiasco created by their meddling into areas they know nothing about, and Chertoff is in over his head.

    And, who, in their right mind, would work for someone like(Chertoff) who will not accept responsibility for the failure of his own organization. Just look at the “Brown incident” and that tells one the entire story of “whats wrong at DHS.

  5. anjin-san says:


    Why doesn’t Bush replace Chertoff, who is an obvious incompetent? After all, he is holding a fairly important job.

  6. floyd says:

    anjin-san;bush already has a job![lol]