Congressman: DHS Unresponsiveness Undermines Public Trust in Government

By Dan Parsons

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., feels the Department of Homeland Security is deepening public distrust of the federal government because of its “lackadaisical approach” to providing accurate information in a timely manner.

“This Administration specifically has an increasing sense of a bunker mentality in responding to the public, engaging with stakeholders, and collaborating with industry and advocacy groups,” Duncan said at a June 14 hearing of the House subcommittee on oversight and management efficiency, which he chairs.

Members of the subcommittee drew attention to inadequacies with DHS’s attention to public inquiries, and the means by which they might then rectify those issues.

Duncan cited innumerable offenses of the department in their responses towards the public. This, he said, drew attention to much larger issue than departmental communication. His concern was that the American people do not trust the federal government.

“Delaying to get the truth out feeds the fire of distrust,” he said. “The American people need the facts so that they can deal with them.”

“When DHS officials or their colleagues at the components do respond to legitimate questions concerning departmental policy or actions, responses are often defensive and condescending,” Duncan said of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. “I found this out first hand when I raised serious visa security issues with Secretary Napolitano in April only to be told that my question was not worthy of an answer because and I quote ‘It is so full with misstatements and misapprehensions that it’s just not worthy of an answer.’”

Rep. Ron Barber D-Ariz. echoed these sentiments, saying that DHS has a major responsibility to remain transparent at all times.

Bill Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), through a study of U.S. attitudes toward terrorism, found that “Americans think about the prospect of terrorism more frequently than they think about hospitalization or being the victims of violent crime, suggesting that Americans are not complacent regarding the threat of terrorism.”

Duncan said the START survey results supported his own assessment of DHS. A citizenry that is so consistently concerned with the potential of terrorist attack requires a homeland security bureaucracy that is attentive to their needs and requests for information, he said.

“An uncommunicative Department of Homeland Security that is seen as consistently stonewalling increases people’s skepticism of DHS, strains the institution’s credibility, and makes people question the motivations of the Department’s leadership,” he said. “How does this serve DHS’s critical mission to defend the homeland?”

Robert Jensen, principal deputy assistant secretary of the DHS Office of Public Affairs, and Tamara Kessler, acting officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) then defended the actions of DHS staff.

Jensen firmly supported the efforts made by the department’s spokespeople. He asserted that they provide “timely, accurate information to a wide range of stakeholders, including the American public, media, federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government partners, the private sector, and the Department’s more than 240,000 employees.”

He highlighted public campaigns such as “If You See Something, Say Something” and “Stop. Think. Connect.” as effective means of interacting with the American people while simultaneously providing security.

Kessler detailed the CRCL’s efforts to reach out to multiple ethnicities and interfaith communities, to help ensure that “all communities in this country are active participants in the homeland security effort.” Braniff confirmed this sort of outreach program as an effective means of creating trust by empowering constituents to work with local governments to take their security into their own hands.

Duncan suggested the information presented by Braniff and Pinkham should be taken into account by DHS, and that simple changes in communication could drastically change the public’s perception of it.

While Jensen and Kessler focused heavily on the positive influence of the initiatives taken on by their respective offices, they conceded that there were areas that could be improved.

“Could we do better? Yes,” said Jensen, who ultimately failed to provide specifics.

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Leadership

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