DHS touts progress on recruitment, morale

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer inspects a vehicle. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer inspects a vehicle. James Tourtellotte/Customs and Border Protection
The Homeland Security Department is making significant progress in recruiting a talented workforce and improving employee morale, a high-ranking management official said Thursday.

At a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee overseeing the federal workforce, Paul Schneider, undersecretary for management at DHS, told lawmakers that the agency's new personnel strategy known as the Human Capital Operational Plan is successfully meeting the department's goals.

"We are aggressively building a world-class organization by hiring and retaining a talented and diverse workforce," Schneider said.

Schneider said the department is conducting focus group sessions with subcomponent agencies to identify the best practices in such areas as communication and to determine the lessons learned from its performance management system. He said DHS also is developing a rewards program that is modeled on programs at top agencies across government.

Lawmakers' concerns about morale at DHS stem from the results of the Office of Personnel Management's 2006 federal workforce survey, in which the department ranked last or almost last in the categories of job satisfaction, leadership and workplace performance.

Schneider acknowledged the poor results, adding DHS officials evaluated them and analyzed the practices of the top-performing agencies. "This summer, we will conduct another survey of our workforce to ensure that our efforts are on track and address key employee concerns," he said.

Schneider said the department also has implemented a two-year employee fellows program that takes some of its best and brightest employees and trains them in leadership and response efforts. The last six months of the program involve mandatory rotational assignments in various positions across the department.

In addition, DHS has moved quickly to meet its hiring targets, specifically for front-line mission-critical occupations, Schneider testified. The agency has filled more than 58 percent of 2,105 authorized new positions for the year within its Immigrations and Customs Enforcement bureau, he said, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has met its 90 percent staffing target.

Comptroller General David M. Walker told subcommittee members that while DHS has made some progress in transforming its human capital system, much more work remains. He said some of the most pressing challenges are creating a unified results-oriented culture, rewarding employees based on individual, team and organizational results, and establishing top leadership consisting of a chief operating officer and a chief management officer.

"People are at the center of any serious change management initiative, and addressing the people element and employee morale issues is the key to a successful merger and transformation," Walker said.

Schneider said the Human Capital Operational Plan is essential to unifying the agency and linking individual performance with specific organizational goals.

"It will foster an environment of open communication and feedback between the supervisor and employee, and reward more productive and harder working employees," Schneider said.

DHS has trained more than 13,000 supervisors to develop performance measurements and administer the operational plan, under which 14,000 department employees now work.

But moving ahead on the human capital project may prove difficult. The 2008 DHS authorization bill approved by the House Wednesday includes provisions that would repeal the DHS human resources management system established by a 2002 law and the subsequent regulations issued by the department. The measure (H.R. 1684) was approved by a 296-126 vote.

The bill would authorize $40 billion for DHS for fiscal 2008 and includes a provision that would unravel proposed changes to employee appeal rights and performance management.

The new personnel system, formerly known as MaxHR, has drawn strong opposition from federal labor unions, which filed suit against DHS last year and won a court order blocking the implementation of the proposed labor relations rules. The court found the system to illegally curtail collective bargaining rights for employees by giving management the ability to cancel negotiated agreements after the fact. The department's new personnel plan includes the portions of MaxHR that were not explicitly ruled illegal by the courts.

The White House has threatened to veto the authorization measure if the provision repealing the personnel regulations is included in the final bill.

But National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley characterized the margin by which the House passed the bill as "veto-proof," and praised lawmakers for keeping the language.

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