Principles of Politics Exercise


Goals of This Exercise

  • Illustrate the complexity of the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Explore the collective action problems that pertain to such a complex organization.
  • Demonstrate how the Bush and Obama administrations have sought to overcome DHS’s inherent collective-action problems.

Table 8.1

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created, it became an amalgam of 22 federal agencies organized into four divisions or directorates plus the Secret Service and the Coast Guard.

The Undersecretaries are faced with the task of coordinating the activities of several agencies with different bureaucratic cultures from different federal departments.

How Much Complexity? How Many Bureaucratic Cultures?

  • Each division of the Department of Homeland Security coordinates the work of numerous preexisting agencies.
    – Division 1: Border and Transportation Security: eight agencies from five departments
    – Division 2: Emergency Preparedness and Response: four agencies from four departments
    – Division 3: Science and Technology: four agencies from three departments
    – Division 4: Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection: four agencies from four departments
  • This listing does not include all of the agencies and departments that became DHS. Indeed, both the Secret Service (Treasury Department) and the Coast Guard (Transportation Department) are included as well.
  • Overall, the Department of Homeland Security coordinates the activities of 22 preexisting federal agencies, which were controlled by 11 separate cabinet-level departments.

Source: DHS Organization, U.S. Department of Homeland Security,

Examining the Collective-Action Principle

The Collective-Action Principle: All politics is collective action.

Cooperation through collective action is difficult, and the difficulty mounts as the number and diversity of people or organizations grow. Size and diversity are traditionally viewed as impediments to collective action that must be overcome through institutions and processes designed to provide coordination and leadership.

Consider the collective action of a Department of Homeland Security that must coordinate the activities of 22 different agencies and organizational cultures from departments as diverse as the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, on the one hand, and Commerce to the Departments of Defense and Justice, on the other.

Providing Incentives for Collective Action

Examine the following proposals for action in the administration’s 2004 Proposed Budget for DHS.

For each provision, answer the following questions:

  • What is the primary impediment to collective action?
  • What mechanism is being proposed to overcome that impediment?

In 2004, DHS allocated a portion of its budget to establish an Office for State and Local Government Coordination.

Impediment to Collective Action:

The American federal system diffuses authority for governance among many states and municipalities and their respective governors and mayors. By diffusing this authority, federalism creates an impediment to swift, coordinated action in times of crisis.

Solution to Collective-Action Problem:

Creating an office of coordination is an effort to establish networks of relationships between DHS and the many state and local officeholders in the federal system.

Analyze These Proposals as Efforts to Overcome Some Collective-Action Problem

  • What is the impediment to collective action?
  • What is the solution mechanism?
Spend $146 million to provide “basic and advanced training to more than 76 federal agencies” as well as state, local, and international officials on the subject of border and transportation security.
Provide DHS with the authority to speed up the Food and Drug Administration approval process on “needed vaccines and medication for biodefense.”
3. Provide $350 million in grants to private companies, academic researchers, and government agencies to conduct research.

Exploring Means of Providing Structures for Collective Action

Institution Principle: Institutions structure politics.

Providing the institutional structures necessary to coordinate efforts among these varied departments and agencies has proven a perennial issue for DHS administration.

Note the following two efforts—one from the Bush administration and the other from the Obama administration—to secure collective action (DHS, “Department Six-Point Agenda” and “Departmental Responsibilities”).

Bush Administration

In July 2005, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff announced new DHS structures designed to better address potential threats. Along with a newly articulated list of agenda items, Chertoff also outlined “Organizational Initiatives” including the following efforts:

  • Centralize and improve policy development and coordination.
  • Strengthen intelligence functions and information sharing.
  • Improve coordination and efficiency of operations.
  • Enhance coordination and deployment of preparedness assets.

Obama Administration

Beginning in 2009, Secretary Janet Napolitano’s DHS also saw “unifying” the department as a key initiative. With broad goals aimed at “Consolidating Facilities” and “Streamlining Operations,” DHS will construct a new departmental “headquarters” campus, coordinating information by “fusing its 17 dispersed data centers into two Enterprise Centers,” as well as more general efforts to trim costs, streamline operations, eliminate duplication, and better manage resources across the department.

Collective Action in Homeland Security

Answer the following questions:

4. How might the purposive, goal-oriented behavior of the different agencies and actors with which DHS must cooperate serve as an impediment to its coordination and collective-action efforts?
5. Given that the central task of DHS is to provide coordination and collective action to security efforts, how does the department use its resources to accomplish these aims?
6. What are the potential dangers of giving the secretary of DHS the requisite powers needed to overcome all of these collective-action problems?


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