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At DHS, an Exodus of Tech and Cyber Leaders

The rotating cast of officials in top tech and cyber jobs could hinder the department’s ability to develop and execute a consistent digital strategy.

The Homeland Security Department is facing an exodus of officials in its top tech and cyber roles, and that turnover could limit the agency’s ability to execute a coherent digital policy.

On Thursday, Jeanette Manfra, the assistant director for cybersecurity within the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, announced she would step down from her post by the end of the year. The decision, first reported by CyberScoop and which Nextgov later confirmed with CISA, will leave vacant one of the most important roles in the government’s civilian cyber operations.

The announcement came days after Homeland Security lost both its chief information officer John Zangardi and acting chief data officer Donna Roy, and the Trump administration continues to rotate officials through other top jobs.

As the cyber lead at CISA and its predecessor component, Manfra oversaw a wide-ranging portfolio of programs to protect the country’s digital infrastructure, including strengthening election systems, locking down U.S. supply chains, fighting foreign disinformation, securing agency networks and improving the coordination of federal cyber strategy. She also served as the public face for many of the department’s cybersecurity initiatives, frequently speaking at public panels forums and representing the agency at high-profile conferences around the country.

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Manfra "has played an important role in advancing the cybersecurity posture of federal networks and has helped build stronger, more productive relationships with owners and operators of critical infrastructure to ensure that the federal government and private sector work together closely to make the cyber ecosystem more secure,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Innovation Subcommittee Chairman Cedric Richmond, D-La., said in a statement.

“Ultimately, she served as a steady hand through CISA’s transitioned to become an operational component, staying above the political fray to work with members on both sides of the aisle to ensure CISA will be well-positioned to carry out its critical cybersecurity mission as cyber threats continue to evolve,” they added.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Manfra said she would take a job in the private sector sometime next year. CISA has yet to name her replacement.

In the days before Manfra announced her departure, Homeland Security also lost a separate pair of high-ranking tech officials.

On Nov. 15, CIO John Zangardi left his post to take a job at Leidos, a government IT integrator. Zangardi previously served as acting CIO for the Defense Department before joining Homeland Security in December 2017 to replace outgoing CIO Richard Staropoli. Deputy CIO Beth Capello will take over Zangardi’s role.

On Nov. 10, the department also lost its acting CDO Donna Roy, who left to become CIO of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Roy was appointed acting CDO in July as the department worked to meet the requirements of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which required the agencies to ramp up their use of data. Roy also served as executive director of the department’s Information Sharing and Services office. Phil Letowt was tapped to take over the office following Roy’s departure, though the agency didn’t say whether he would also assume the CDO role.

This rotating cast of tech leaders could limit the agency’s ability to coordinate and execute a coherent digital strategy. When executives leave, agencies lose institutional knowledge and must adapt their approach to tech and cyber issues to accommodate the new leader’s priorities. And because it takes time for new officials to learn the ropes, existing programs may be put on pause.

“When you have a lot of knowledge and wisdom that may have been there for several years and then that goes out the door … the real question is, ‘OK, what happens next,’” Nick Marinos, director of the Information Technology and Cybersecurity team at the Government Accountability Office, said during a panel on Tuesday. 

Beyond turnover in tech leadership, Homeland Security is also facing a rotating cast of characters in its highest offices.

Last week, the Trump administration also named Chad Wolf as acting Homeland Security secretary, the third person to hold the department’s top job since April. The agency also has no official deputy secretary, and multiple components—including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—lack a permanent director.