A Steady Hand during a Time of Transition

December 2, 2008
by Matt Kohut

As the United States prepares for the first presidential transition of the post-9/11 era, its newest Cabinet-level department faces an enormous challenge. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), established in 2002, has never been through a change of administration. That is about to change. In the coming months, nearly two hundred Bush administration appointees will step down, and the department's career civil servants will fill key vacancies until the new president's appointees are in place. Throughout this period, DHS must remain ready to respond to a national incident, whether a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

The responsibility of planning for the transition falls squarely on Rear Admiral John Acton. Acton attended the Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education program for National and International Security (NIS) in 2005. As a Reservist in the U.S. Coast Guard, Acton is the Director of the Presidential Transition Team for both DHS and the Coast Guard. It is a role befitting his experience. After the 9/11 attacks, he was recalled to active duty for nearly three years, a stretch that culminated in an assignment to the operations integration staff of then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge.

His transition work focuses in four key areas: managing the internal processes necessary to handle the flow of political appointees from one administration to the next; preparing Senate confirmation and briefing materials for the new Secretary of Homeland Security and other appointees; implementing a robust training and exercise program; and communicating about the transition with key stakeholders at all levels of government, as well as with international partners and private industry. He is carrying this out with a core team of just seven full-time staff members, aided by transition officers from DHS component organizations such as the Transportation Security Administration, FEMA, and Customs and Border Patrol.

Having worked so extensively across organizational boundaries, he appreciates the diversity of the National and International Security (NIS) program. "One of the big benefits of the program is the networking and the classmates you have. You have senior executives from across the state, local, and federal levels, and we even had some international students and private industry folks as well," he said. "The biggest single difference at Harvard is the student body. You get a broader mix of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, which leads to a broader mix of opinions."

As it happened, Hurricane Katrina cut short his time at the Kennedy School. "I left class, packed my bags, got my hepatitis shots, caught a flight, and within 24 hours I was in New Orleans," he recalls. "When I was redeployed, I ended up running into all these Harvard classmates working on Katrina. General Rodriguez, who was The Adjutant General (TAG) for Texas (National Guard), was with me, as was Major General Doug Burnett, the TAG for Florida. I've run across them many times now with Katrina, Rita, and work we've done afterward. It’s been very useful."

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Rear Admiral John

Above: Rear Admiral John Acton.

"The biggest single difference at Harvard is the student body. You get a broader mix of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, which leads to a broader mix of opinions."

Rear Admiral John Acton with Coast Guard colleagues.

Rear Admiral John Acton with colleagues.