Layers of Problems Drive Morale Issues at the Department of Homeland Security

January 21, 2020 10:37 AM , Updated February 2, 2020 7:31 AM
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The Oversight, Management and Accountability Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on January 14 to discuss morale at the the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The hearing was prompted by DHS once again ranking at the bottom of the Partnership for Public Service Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.

DHS Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey testified that DHS had significantly improved its numbers, citing the Secret Service and its systematic approach to dealing with morale issues, and the Transportation Security Adminstration’s steady improvement in morale. She described the Department’s approach, with focus on areas that employees have identified as critical drivers of morale.

Chris Currie, Director of the Government Accountability Office Homeland Security and Justice Teamtestified that current and former DHS leadership clearly care about the issue of morale. He said DHS is making slow and steady progress, in part by following some of the recommendations GAO has made. He said that while DHS has a unique mission, other Departments and Agencies have unique missions and are able to maintain high levels of employee morale. He cited the US Coast Guard as a component of DHS that has far better morale and a long history of strong leadership. He suggested the Committee also talk with DHS leaders and that they put the same level of attention on mission support as on mission issues.

Max Stier, President of the Partnership for Public Servicetestified that DHS has an excellent Chief Human Capital Officer in Ms. Bailey. He highlighted the improvements in some components, specifically:

  • The Office of Intelligence and Analysis saw a 13.1 point increase in 2019 and the Office of the Secretary jumped 6.9 points.
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which ranks 90 of 420 subcomponents, has an index score of 72.9 of 100 and has improved 14 points from its 2005 low.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard improved its score, rising 2.7 points. Of all 420 subcomponents across government included in the rankings, the Coast Guard remains the highest-ranked DHS subcomponent – 85th of 420 subcomponents.
  • The U.S. Secret Service is worth highlighting for its 8.9 point jump in 2019 for an index score of 52.9 of 100, a 61% improvement from its 2016 low score of 32.8.
  • The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has improved in five of the last six years, from 36.2 in 2013 to 51.5 in 2019.

Mr Stier also identified specific steps DHS could take to improve morale.

  1. Congress should hold hearings regularly to focus on DHS morale issues
  2. Hold leaders accountable – political appointees should have performance plans
  3. Provide continuity in senior management ranks (5 Under Secretaries for Management in 5 years). DHS has too many political appointees
  4. Provide budget stability. Shutdowns are burning down your own house
  5. Consolidate congressional jurisdiction over DHS
  6. Modernize the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey
  7. Continue to improve data and metrics
  8. Ensure that political leaders are focused on engagement and management
  9. Enhance career leadership development
  10. Create a culture of continual learning, reskilling and upskilling
  11. Work to fill vacancies

Three issues that the witnesses highlighted stand out. First is the improvement in morale in several components. The improvements they have made are real, and they can make a difference for those components. The problem with DHS-wide numbers is that they are driven by the largest components – TSA and CBP – which comprise 60 percent of the DHS workforce. Here are all of the component Best Places rankings:

forming the Duties of the Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
  • Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (acting), Mark A. Morgan
  • Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency (acting), Pete T. Gaynor
  • Director, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), (vacant), Matthew T. Albence, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Director, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • Assistant Secretary, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (acting), Gary Rasicot
  • Having Acting officials in 15 of the most critical Homeland Security positions makes any kind of sustained improvement far more challenging. The only positions on this list that really need to be political appointees are the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, but making that change would require Congress and the President to agree to change the law, and that is not likely to happen. At a minimum, the positions should have fixed terms, such as the 5-year term for the Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration. If all of the senior DHS political jobs, other than the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, had fixed 5-year terms and could be removed only for cause, we might see all of the components better positioned to make real change.

    This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com, and has been reposted here with permission from the author. Visit ChiefHRO.com to read more of Jeff's articles regarding federal human resources and other current events along with his insights on reforming the HR system.

    © 2020 Jeff Neal. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Jeff Neal.

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    About the Author

    Jeff Neal is author of the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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