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Anatomy of a turnaround: The Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management

Michael Masters

In May of 2011, Michael Masters was appointed executive director of the Cook County, IL Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) by Toni Preckwinkle, who had been elected President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners five months earlier, in December, 2010, on a platform of bringing accountability, transparency and integrity to county government.  

Masters, who earned a masters degree from Cambridge University and his law degree at Harvard, had previously served as the chief of staff of the Chicago Police Department, an assistant to the mayor and holds the rank of Captain in the U.S.  Marines.  He also serves as an adjunct professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

In this exclusive interview with Government Security News, Masters indicated that one of the best parts of signing on to the job was that he had an extraordinary boss in  Preckwinkle, who provided her constant support. With that support he has been able to recruit and hire an exemplary team and engage in a total organizational redesign of his department. That was the good news.

The bad news was that he was taking on a gargantuan task that consisted of nothing less than converting an agency that was in dire need of a strategic overhaul into a model urban agency with accountability, transparency and integrity -- a task that would likely require him to call on everything he had ever learned through his education, as well from his time in the mayor’s office, the Chicago Police Department, and the  Marines combined.

For starters, prior to Preckwinkle’s  election,  the Cook County DHSEM had been the subject of a number of investigations by various agencies, including one by the Office of the Inspector General of DHS. Moreover, as Masters quickly learned, the Department had no ability to support local, state or federal partners;  no functional training and exercise programs were  being provided to first responders; there was zero operational capacity and total financial disarray.

Adding an extra layer of complexity was the fact that Cook County is the second largest county in the U.S.,  encompassing 946 square miles, 134 jurisdictions including the City of Chicago and a total population of roughly 5.1 million people. Classified by the DHS as an Urban Area, the county is, as Master’s pointed out, “a point of interest for those who would wish harm to all of us, including our families and friends,” as well as “a locale that faces regular severe weather, including tornadoes, floods and blizzards,” all of which adds up to a situation that calls for a very committed and dedicated department devoted to homeland security and emergency management.

What follows is a step by step account of the measures that were employed by Michael Masters and the team that he put together to implement  fiscal responsibility, accountability, transparency, innovative leadership and improved services in Cook County government.

The turnaround began, according to Masters, with the development of a comprehensive planning, information-sharing, operations, logistics, training and grants management program that could effectively serve key stakeholders in the public, private, non-profit and academic sectors, along with, most critically, the residents of Cook County.

One of the first steps in the plan was to initiate an internal audit of previous practices with respect to accounting, grant management and financial transparency. What the audit disclosed, unfortunately, was that the previous administration did not actively apply for grants, and on the rare occasions when it did, management of the grants received was questionable at best. It was clear to Masters that proper management of funds is not only essential for proper administration of programs and federal grant dollars, but also will  benefit Cook County residents by enhancing regional capabilities and preparedness.

Accordingly, it was time to recruit a new grants team, one that included individuals with experience both in local and state government. The department then instituted a grants management process, which includes system checks and guidelines to ensure that efforts are in compliance with federal regulations, agency administrative requirements and relevant Office of Management and Budget circulars.

At the same time, every effort was made to address past issues with respect to procurement, property and record requirements, so as to ensure a transparent and accountable system guided by performance metrics. The team now identifies grants, applies for those for which DHSEM is qualified and provides local jurisdictions with notice of available grant opportunities.

In another regrettable finding of the internal audit, it was revealed that the Department lacked even a basic capacity to sustain itself, let alone coordinate or assist county partners or stakeholders from the public, private, non-profit or academic sectors. On a hot day in June, Masters recalls, after only a few weeks on the job, he asked to see the Extreme Heat Plan. But, despite being in the second largest county in the U.S., with one of the largest public health systems in the nation, one of the busiest medical examiner’s offices in the country and one of the most active criminal justice systems, there was no Extreme Heat Plan.

“If we fail or if we succeed can be measured in whether people live or die,” said Masters. It is that simple. “The attitude the Department had to meet that mission was unacceptable.”