If you didn’t have a Coast Guard, you’d probably look to create one,” noted Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security, in a 2003 interview.1 This was in the early days of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Coast Guard was one of its centerpieces. His quote caught on with service leaders, who repeatedly cited the secretary’s sentiment about their agency being essential to the nation.2 After all, the Coast Guard provides unquestionably indispensable services: ensuring navigable waterways, conducting search and rescue, and protecting critical infrastructure on the nation’s waters, among others. Moreover, the organization has a proud history of major successes spanning from 1790 to today, including service in every major U.S. war and responses to high-profile events such as the Mariel Boatlift and Hurricane Katrina.
Such distinguished history, praiseworthy performance, and organizational value might lead one to conclude the Coast Guard enjoys near-unanimous understanding and support from citizens and intragovernmental stakeholders alike. Not so. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for members of Congress, journalists, think-tankers, or others to question even fundamental aspects of the Coast Guard’s existence, from which department it sits in to which missions it should (or should not) be doing. For example:
A 2010 think tank report suggested that, to make up for its various shortcomings, the Coast Guard should be moved from DHS to the Department of the Navy.3
A 2011 Senate budget proposal made the same recommendation for the purpose of saving money.4
A 2013 Foreign Policy article suggested that responsibility for operations in the Arctic should be shifted away from the insufficiently militant Coast Guard because it would “probably be easier for the Navy and Marines to reinvent themselves as cold-weather expeditionary forces than for the quasi-police Coast Guard to reinvent itself as a battle force.”5
In a 2014 interview, former Commandant Thad Allen was asked whether the Coast Guard belonged in DHS and whether it should shed some of its missions.6
In the 2003 interview, Secretary Ridge was asked if the service should be stripped of its naval force protection roles in wartime.7
In his 2015 State of the Coast Guard address, Commandant Paul Zukunft cited a government report that recommended splitting up the Coast Guard and giving its missions to other agencies; that report was from 1915.8
So, the Coast Guard is a proven entity that functions well, provides great value to the nation, and is consistently and articulately defended by its leaders. It also is continually misunderstood, criticized, and questioned. Why has the Coast Guard, for at least a century, been stuck in a loop of having to justify and rejustify its roles and structure?
Perhaps one problem is that the service views and advertises itself as indispensable, which means it often fails to provide satisfactory responses to challenges to its identity or value.9 Potential partners and supporters—from congressmen to citizens—simply are not convinced by the mere proposition that the country needs a Coast Guard or that it has the Coast Guard it needs. It is time for new thinking.
The Idea of Indispensability
The idea of indispensability is rooted in the belief that “there is no competitive substitute” for what a certain organization does. Economist Theodore Levitt described how such beliefs often contribute to an elemental misunderstanding of organizational identity. He offered some compelling examples: If the makers of whips for buggies had viewed themselves as being in the transportation business rather than the buggy-whip business, would they still be in existence? Would rail companies be healthier today if they had focused on delivering the best transportation services possible, rather than limiting themselves to producing rail lines and trains? How an entity views, develops, and communicates its purpose, in other words, has a profound effect on its future prospects.10
An organization that views itself as indispensable is prone to focusing on assets rather than services, tools rather than solutions. It is less likely to be self-critical or to change with the times. This is an especially crucial point for the Coast Guard, which requires major recapitalization projects on a cyclical basis and whose “customers” are a diverse group of stakeholders who perceive the service’s value to the nation in a wide—and ever-shifting—variety of ways (e.g., a combatant commander wants a different deliverable than does a commercial fisherman).
To avoid falling into the indispensability trap, Levitt recommends a shift not only in how an institution envisions and markets itself, but also in how it organizes and does business. Ideally, he writes,
An industry begins with the customer and his needs. Given the customer’s needs, the industry develops backwards, first concerning itself with the physical delivery of customer satisfactions. Then it moves back further to creating the things by which these satisfactions are in part achieved. How these materials are created is a matter of indifference to the customer.11 (Emphasis added.)
That is clearly a business-centric statement, but it has important implications for the Coast Guard. If the service’s “customers” include the public, Congress, and interagency partners, and the “materials created” are more accurately missions completed (search and rescue, drug interdiction, etc.), one can see why those customers would be indifferent to which assets are used to complete those missions. A boater will care that her life will be saved if her boat sinks, but she likely will not care whether she is saved by a patrol boat or a helicopter. Congress has an interest in seeing drug seizures result from the funding it appropriates for that purpose, but it probably cares little whether those seizures are made by a National Security Cutter or a law enforcement detachment operating from a partner nation ship.
So what can the Coast Guard do to change the way it views, organizes, and advertises itself? As Levitt noted, “building an effective customer-oriented company involves far more than good intentions or promotional tricks; it involves profound matters of human organization and leadership.” Leaders must view their organization “not as producing products but as providing . . . value satisfactions. It must push this idea (and everything it means and requires) into every nook and cranny of the organization.”12 Coast Guard leaders must view and plan for the way ahead in terms of “doing the things that will make people want to do business with” their service, and they must foster an organization and culture that does the same. Several specific measures can help make this a reality.
Confronting Perception Challenges
The Coast Guard faces two main challenges in presenting a clear value proposition to its customers. First, its multimission character means it needs to advertise to multiple groups in multiple ways; no single selling point will appeal to all stakeholders in the way that, say, the Navy’s national defense mission does. Rather, the Coast Guard must present several different value propositions—military, law enforcement, regulatory, etc.—simultaneously.
Second, there often appears to be an overlap between Coast Guard functions and the functions of other government agencies. For example, the service’s perceived value as an organization that conducts boating safety operations is lessened by the fact that state and local law enforcement agencies often conduct the same operations. Likewise, its perceived value as a force provider for military operations overseas is hampered by the fact that many people consider such activities to be “Navy missions.”
These are real issues with real implications for the future of the service. Such dynamics can make the Coast Guard seem somewhat vague or abstract to many important stakeholders. Congress and the taxpayers do not get excited about providing funding for abstractions, and the joint and interagency communities do not seek out vague partnerships. To confront these realities, the Coast Guard should:
Create an enterprise strategic messaging plan that breaks down value propositions by mission type and includes a description of the respective target audience. Such a plan would include legislative and interagency equities as well as public and industry outreach activities/messaging, thereby harmonizing efforts across all audiences. This could be an independent plan or an addendum to the existing Coast Guard Communication Framework produced by the Office of Public Affairs.
Address mission overlaps head-on. Much of the Coast Guard’s communication about its mission accomplishments ignores the fact that its work sometimes overlaps that of other agencies. This does no good for justifying activities, organizational features, and funding; citizens see an organization is doing the same thing as someone else and conclude it is redundant. Clear, forthright messaging on why those overlaps are beneficial is called for—and possible. For example, Secretary Ridge used the following formulation when discussing the myriad stakeholders that would have to be involved in homeland security: “This is a war fought with a strategy that isn’t federal, but federalist.”13 That is strong messaging that Americans and their political representatives understand.
Maybe local police marine units and Coast Guard stations are performing some of the same mission sets—that is a good thing. By working together, they can ensure interoperability for major emergency events, share intelligence, and coordinate to ensure a layered approach and expanded coverage without overtaxing individual agencies. Likewise, the Navy and Coast Guard both deploy ships and other forces across the globe, but using Coast Guard assets in joint military contexts prepares the service to provide a capacity surge in wartime and to be interoperable with Navy counterparts. Moreover, embedding Coast Guard forces in the joint environment adds both a diplomatic benefit in terms of relating to foreign forces and an enhanced skill set that makes naval forces capable of a broader array of missions.
Maturing Strategy and Strategic Processes
A robust strategic planning process that both ensures long-term coherence and articulates Coast Guard approaches to emerging issues also is critical. Over the past few years, the service has come a long way toward making this a reality. Admiral Zukunft has articulated a process whereby the service will produce a Strategic Direction, Strategic Intent, and Strategic Plan in sequence and on a four-year cycle.14 These overarching documents can present the Coast Guard’s intentions and value in results-oriented terms.
Moreover, in recent years, the Coast Guard has produced topic-specific strategies that deal with emerging issues: the Arctic, the Western Hemisphere, and cyber. These documents are to date the best vehicles the Coast Guard has to state consequences and outcomes for “customers” in a tailored fashion. Port operators may be interested in cyber threats to maritime critical infrastructure, and the Cyber Strategy can show them the value of Coast Guard activity in that realm, implicitly making a case for a Coast Guard cyber workforce. Joint military and interagency law enforcement partners may be more interested in the Coast Guard’s work in the Western Hemisphere, in terms of disrupting transnational organized crime or providing U.S. power projection in the absence of Navy surface ships. These customers can see outcomes and consequences laid out in the Western Hemisphere Strategy, and in the process gain a results-based understanding of why the Coast Guard needs offshore patrol cutters.
Further strategic maturation can ensure a “customer first” footing is sustained and pushed down to every part of the Coast Guard. To this end, the service should reinstate some type of strategy function above its operations/mission support structure, as a direct report to the Commandant/Vice Commandant. This could be a small office that “holds the pen,” or at least manages the process, regarding writing strategies and monitoring their implementation. If such reorganization proves too onerous, some relief could be provided by the appointment of a single billet with the sole purpose of serving as the Commandant’s strategy adviser. Alternately, a Strategic Studies Group (SSG) with Coast Guard officers assigned on a rotational basis could focus on vexing strategic problems selected by the Commandant and senior leadership. By assigning officers to an SSG as a collateral duty and using only individuals already assigned to Headquarters, the Coast Guard could produce this strategy-bolstering work at little or no cost.
Producing a Force Planning Construct
The most important step the Coast Guard can take to communicate its value to the nation—and to organize and manage itself to best deliver that value—is to create and promulgate a force planning construct (FPC). An FPC would state what and how much the Coast Guard should or intends to be capable of doing (e.g., carrying out steady-state operations and readiness across all its mission sets while maintaining the ability to respond to one major domestic natural disaster and support one major overseas conflict). In other words, it would explicitly declare the Coast Guard’s value in terms of its ability to accomplish missions. From there, it would “build backward” to establish what type of force—in terms of people, training and capabilities, and assets—would be needed to fulfill those missions. As Coast Guard Captain Gregory Stump noted in the August 2016 Proceedings, an FPC could “address shortfalls and validate operational resource requirements” by accounting for “the size and shape of daily operations, as well as contingencies, in both the near and far term.”15
Critically, an FPC would connect the assets the Coast Guard needs to purchase to a well-established, long-running, and publicly available set of mission requirements that reflect what its customers see as the value of the organization. The Commandant has signaled his intent to produce an FPC as part of a multiyear effort; this is an excellent sign. Given how much an FPC could do to articulate and justify Coast Guard resource needs in strained budget times, however, the service should prioritize the FPC project and seek to have it completed as soon as practicable.
Ultimately, the Coast Guard might always face difficulties conveying its full value to the nation. Its history— consisting of folding in various predecessor agencies—makes it a difficult organization for outsiders to see and understand as a coherent whole, even as that history is a source of great pride for those who have served and continue to serve in America’s oldest continuous seagoing service. For the sake of those service members and the missions they accomplish, then, the Coast Guard must break its traditional patterns of thinking.
The Coast Guard’s value is seen and understood only in direct and personal ways by each unique beneficiary. As Levitt noted, “People actually do not buy gasoline. . . . What they buy is the right to continue driving their cars.”16 Similarly, neither Congress, nor taxpayers, nor interagency partners invest in or support Coast Guard assets—boats, helicopters, marine inspectors, ships. What they invest in and support is the right to operate safely on the water. The service needs to embrace this thinking, to propose its value externally and organize itself internally with this in mind. It is the best—and maybe only—way for the Coast Guard to ensure it is adequately funded, fully appreciated, and optimally employed for the years to come.
1. Tom Ridge, remarks/interview at “Securing America in a Post 9/11 World,” American Enterprise Institute, 2 September 2003.
2. Admiral Thomas Collins, USCG, “Change and Continuity: Today’s U.S. Coast Guard,” Joint Center for Operational Analysis Lessons Learned Quarterly Bulletin (September 2004), 4; and Admiral Thad Allen, USGC, interview with Maritime Logistics Professional, 11 April 2014.
3. Lawrence Korb, Sean Duggan, and Laura Conley. “Building a U.S. Coast Guard for the 21st Century,” Center for American Progress, June 2010.
4. Devin Dwyer, “Department of Homeland Security a Bureaucratic Behemoth after Eight Years,” ABC News, 1 March 2011.
5. James Holmes, “America Needs a Coast Guard That Can Fight,” Foreign Policy, 15 March 2013.
6. Allen, interview, Maritime Logistics Professional.
7. Ridge, remarks/interview at “Securing America in a Post 9/11 World.”
8. See www.uscg.mil/seniorleadership/DOCS/State%20of%20Coast%20Guard%20Address%202015%20SLP%20Script.pdf.
9.“U.S. Coast Guard 2017 Posture Statement,” and “Budget in Brief,” www.uscg.mil/budget/docs/2017_Budget_in_Brief.pdf.
10. Theodore Levitt, “Marketing Myopia,” Harvard Business Review (July-August 1960).
11. Levitt, “Marketing Myopia.”
13. Ridge, remarks/interview at “Securing America in a Post 9/11 World.”
14. “Commandant’s Strategic Intent, 2015-2019,” 20.
15. Captain Gregory Stump, USCG, “Sustain Operational Crews and Support,” Proceedings (August 2016).
16. Levitt, op.cit.