Homeland security: if it ain’t broke…
17 Jan 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user Pavlofox.

Recent reporting in News Limited papers suggests that the government is considering reorganising several domestic security agencies into a super department like the UK Home Office. The aim would be to ‘bring together the AFP, ASIO and Australian Border Force into one agency, where they could better engage, communicate and share information to tackle terror threats.’ Malcolm Turnbull was said to be consulting with senior ministers and awaiting the findings of the 2017 Independent Review of the Australian Intelligence Community before making any changes. ‘Just do it, Mr Turnbull,’ The Herald Sun editorialised.

In fact reports of a major reorganisation are exaggerated and it’s unlikely that big structural changes will be made. However the terror threat is constantly changing and there’s no room for complacency when it comes to making sure our agencies, intelligence, policing and legal frameworks are the best they can be to prevent attacks. The PM is rightly setting a high threshold before making any changes.

The idea of amalgamating agencies into a Homeland Security Department or Home Office isn’t new. Under a different Prime Minister the thought was floated publicly towards the end of 2014. David Connery and I wrote an ASPI Strategic Insights paper that set out the pros and cons of changing ministerial arrangements for domestic security. The case for major structural changes to domestic security arrangements is no more persuasive today than it was two years ago. I see five compelling reasons to avoid big organisational change:

1. The system isn’t broken

There’s good reason to think that our police, intelligence and domestic security agencies are performing their counterterrorism responsibilities well. That’s certainly the Prime Minister’s view—following the arrests of alleged terrorist plotters in Melbourne in December 2016, Mr Turnbull said that the operation ‘speaks volumes for the competence and professionalism of our police and security agencies which are the best in the world.’ Between September 2014 and late December 2016 there were 12 successful major disruption activities; 57 people had been charged as a result of 25 counterterrorism operations. Most countries would be happy with that record. In fact a search on the PM’s website reveals that he’s described Australia’s national security agencies as the ‘best in the world’ no less than 16 time since becoming prime minister. So what problem is a Home Office designed to fix?

2. A single agency doesn’t fix communication problems

It’s tempting to imagine that a single agency will more easily engage, communicate and share information, but unless the plan is to physically collocate the agencies those tasks will be no easier than what happens right now. Intelligence agencies and police forces have strong cultures built around their professional disciplines and won’t easily bend to social engineering that promotes a surface-deep ‘one team’ approach to complex problems. As we’ve seen with recent attempts to undertake major structural changes to institutions—amalgamating Customs/Border Force and Immigration; pushing AusAID back into DFAT, and Defence’s First Principles Review—big organisational changes are difficult to achieve, slow and prone to recidivism. And again, what’s the problem here? Communications can always be improved, but our domestic security agencies had their come-to-Jesus moment about inter-agency cooperation after the Bali bombings.

3. Building new structures doesn’t guarantee behavioural change

Agencies going through big organisational change programs rapidly become obsessed with internal problems and risk losing focus on delivering key outputs. Defence’s First Principles Review starts by listing the 35 significant reviews the Department has been through since 1975. Few reviews after Tange in 1975 changed any real behaviour. Government shouldn’t visit the same blight on the internal security agencies unless they’re convinced that there’s something fundamentally broken in the system. Beyond counterterrorism our internal security agencies have responsibility for a range of activities from fighting crime to counterespionage. With any organisational redesign will come a time-consuming rewrite of reporting responsibilities, authorities and legal frameworks—none of which should be started lightly.

4. Reorganisations can mask the need for deeper reform

While administrators go about the business of developing implementation programs—drawing up traffic light indicators to map progress and writing talking points for Estimates Committee hearings—it’s often the case that deep reform in the form of cultural change doesn’t happen. If there’s a problem about communication and information-sharing between national security agencies, it has more to do with the ingrained habits about ‘how we do things around here’—the formal and informal culture of the organisations. Of course, it’s hard for change-managers to alter workplace behaviours, which is why one can live through constant organisational redesign and actually see little real change.

5. In counterterrorism, let’s keep the focus on operational delivery

A senior ADF colleague used to dryly observe that most major Defence reform plans had little effect 100 metres beyond the Headquarters compound at Russell Hill. It was true that, for all of the hours spent sweating over organisational redesign, the work seemed to have little impact on operations in Timor-Leste, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The essential task in counterterrorism is to keep delivering effective disruption operations. Organisational restructurings will garner limited interest outside of those who imagine some career win or loss—often the real bureaucratic motivation for wanting change in the first place.

While it’s unlikely that a major reorganisation of agencies will take place, the government should consider whether ministerial roles and responsibilities need to be adapted to better manage counterterrorism policy. The challenge here is that significant numbers of ministers have responsibilities for different agencies relevant to the job. One possibility would be to create a counterterrorism sub-committee of the National Security Committee of Cabinet. Or, like the Indonesians, a senior minister could be given the responsibility of being Coordination Minister for Counterterrorism. There’s a precedent here: although not using the title, Dan Tehan has effectively become the Coordination Minister for Cyber Security.