The US Homeland Security Department hasn’t had a deputy secretary since April. Now it doesn’t even have an acting deputy secretary.
Claire Grady, the career civil servant who had been doing the job on an interim basis after Elaine Duke stepped down, was officially taken off the role last week, the agency recently informed Congress. She had already served the 210-day limit on acting officers set by the federal Vacancies Act, a measure designed to put pressure on presidents to promptly nominate permanent staff.
Unofficially, Grady will continue performing the deputy’s duties. Officially, the second highest position at DHS is empty—at a time when the president is reportedly planning to vacate the top post. Several media outlets have reported recently that Trump is looking for a replacement for DHS chief Kirstjen Nielsen, whom he sees as weak on immigration enforcement. He’s been threatening to fire her since May.
The HR upheaval at the Homeland Security department is indicative of how Trump has more broadly handled personnel issues. His administration stands out for its high turn-over, and the slow pace at which top posts are being filled, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a New York-based non-profit that tracks presidential appointments. The president has yet to nominate candidates for nearly 20% of key positions that require Senate confirmation, according to the group’s data.
Open posts are problematic on several fronts. While Grady can continue acting as deputy, her decisions could be challenged on the basis that she’s not officially authorized to make them, says Max Stier, chief executive of Partnership for Public Service.
Plus, she already has another job: undersecretary for management. Doing that in addition to acting as the agency’s chief operating officer (which is essentially what a deputy secretary does) is a tall order. And she has to fulfill those responsibilities amid rumors that her boss could leave at any moment, potentially taking key personnel with her.
“It is not the best way to run a government agency,” says Stier. “Uncertainty is the bane of good management.”
Aside from the Homeland Security deputy position, Trump also has to nominate candidates for the jobs of chief financial officer and assistant secretary of policy at that agency.
Assigning top-management jobs to temps, instead of having Senate-confirmed appointees, can also lead to bad management. The confirmation process exists to weed out unqualified and unserious candidates, says John Bies, chief counsel for American Oversight, a non-profit government watchdog group. It also gives the legislative branch an opportunity to weigh in on who should lead a federal agency.
Bies, a former Department of Justice officer during the Obama administration, points to the controversy over the appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting Attorney General as an example of why that vetting is necessary. Democrats and at least one Republican have raised questions about Whitaker’s fitness for the post after reports that he criticized the Special Counsel investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 elections, which is being conducted under the agency he now leads. He was also a board member at a company accused of fraud.
Had he undergone Senate confirmation, those issues would have come up before he got the job.