Cultural Problems At Secret Service Run Deep

Cultural Problems At Secret Service Run Deep

Julia Pierson’s head has been delivered on the proverbial platter.

She resigned as head of the Secret Service last week, voicing the platitudes that generally come with such things, avowing that stepping down is “in the best interests of the agency.”

Congress made a rare display of bipartisanship, forming a great chorus of pontification as representatives hammered Pierson in a House hearing after a man scaled the White House fence, breezed through the unlocked doors and traipsed through much of the executive mansion before being apprehended.

Shortly after her testimony, it was reported that Secret Service agents had recently allowed another shocking breach of security, having allowed President Obama to ride in the same elevator as an armed ex-convict. The man was a security guard, but the agents seem to have had no idea he was armed or that he had a criminal record.

For Pierson, it was a career-ending week, but for members of Congress it was a bonanza media opportunity, a chance to have their pithy quips rebroadcasted and retweeted just in time for the fall campaign.

But the biggest winners are the bureaucrats of the Secret Service upper management. These are the people best positioned to make changes in their organization’s culture — changes they have failed to make on their own and that they can be counted on to fight if anybody else tries to impose them. They have been delivered a gift.

They are the winners here. Not the American people. Not the president, his family or the diplomats the Secret Service is in charge of protecting. Deep change at the Secret Service has yet to begin.

Pierson, in managing the White House invasion scandal, clearly failed. I can think of two plausible explanations of her bizarre lapse.

One is that she was misinformed. That she relied on inaccurate accounts from her underlings about how Omar Gonzalez was able to so flagrantly breach White House security. And they lied to her. Bad actors do that. They cover their tracks to stay in place.

The other explanation is worse: that Pierson is part of the cover-up. In which case, we’re especially lucky she is gone. But either way, an inescapable question arises: What happens to everyone involved in concocting this lie (beyond Pierson)? Will they be sanctioned? Will the Secret Service’s standard practices be scrutinized? Will managers be canned for deviating from those practices or for lax internal investigations? That would indicate real change.

The Secret Service is an agency of 6,700 staffers, many of them career employees like Pierson who had logged nearly 30 years when she was assigned the top job 18 months ago.

“The Oversight Committee will continue to examine clear and serious agency failures at the Secret Service,” promised its chair, Rep. Darrell Issa. Problem is, just continuing to tally failings, to use them as political trump cards, offers little toward changing the agency in meaningful ways.

In fact, the more turmoil keeps swirling, the less likely it is that substantial change can be implemented. Issa’s next comment got more to the point: “Problems at the Secret Service predate Ms. Pierson’s tenure as director and her resignation certainly does not solve them.”

Yes, Mr. Chairman, and what exactly is your solution?

Shelves and shelves of books have been written on the subject of building, changing and maintaining cultures within organizations, be they Fortune 500 companies, tech startups, public agencies or neighborhood book clubs.

The culture of any organization dictates its internal functioning and the attitudes staff members have toward each other, their jobs and those they serve. It is an extremely difficult thing to uproot, or even change in any substantial and long-lasting way.

Culture often is incredibly durable, weathering periods of turmoil, experts say. As conventional business wisdom puts it, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

The person put in place to move this mountain has to be equally patient and adept at discerning who in the management echelon can and cannot be trusted. Oh, and he or she must be ruthless. Judiciously ruthless. A large purge needs to happen, but the right heads must roll. All those who presided over the catalog of foul-ups over the last few years need to go. Meanwhile, the conscientious rank-and-file agents need to be reassured that the turmoil will create a better Secret Service.

Signs that Pierson was not that leader are painfully evident in her resignation.

She played victim, noting “the media has made it clear that this is what they expected.” Resigning, Pierson told the Associated Press, was “the noble thing to do.” She noted that it would “take pressure off the organization.”

Yet pressure is exactly what the Secret Service needs.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108-1413, or via email at

AFP Photo/Jim Watson

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