While it’s common knowledge that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) bungled its response to Hurricane Katrina, the highly political considerations that went into creating the 180,000-employee department are not as widely understood. Thrown together after 9/11 in an effort to make big, high-profile changes, the DHS quickly devolved into a bloated assortment of federal agencies, each charged with fighting terrorism. The Wilson Quarterly (Spring 2007) proposes tightening the department’s mission by streamlining its bureaucracy, which would include combining some agencies to avoid redundancy and making others more independent.
Since the DHS also suffers from a top-down approach that’s failed to engage citizens, Democracy (Winter 2008) suggests that policy makers study President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Office of Civilian Defense, which focused on public participation. Instead of demanding vague support for its “war on terror,” the government could enlist volunteers to help guard sensitive facilities, assist first responders, and educate neighbors. A scaled-down DHS could also complement local security efforts by providing equipment and other resources. Finally, a broader definition of security would be helpful, since disease, crime, and environmental problems could prove to be even bigger threats to the nation’s safety than terrorism.