Loud and Clear

Homeland Security's Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson answers to his employees.

As the No. 2 guy at the No. 1 most watched agency in government, Homeland Security Department Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson answers to Congress a lot. He's testified 11 times since taking the position two years ago. Jackson answers to his boss, Secretary Michael Chertoff, too, with whom he says he usually meets five to eight times a day. But it's rare that Jackson, whose job puts him in the chief operating officer role at DHS, has to answer directly to the 200,000-plus employees who work for him. On Jan. 30, however, Jackson did.

That day, the Office of Personnel Management released findings from its 2006 Federal Human Capital Survey, which it conducts every two years. Of 36 federal agencies surveyed, DHS ranked 36th in job satisfaction, 36th in results-oriented performance culture, 35th in leadership and 33rd in talent management.

Jackson is a blunt man; he rapidly ticks off memorized lists of priorities and policies in his Texas accent. Down the hall from his office, he points to a photograph on the wall of ground zero in New York and barks, "That's why I'm here."

In his Jan. 30 memo to employees, Jackson told them, "These results deliver a clear and jolting message from managers and line employees alike. I am writing to assure you that, starting at the top, the leadership team across DHS is committed to address the under-lying reasons for DHS employee dissatisfaction."

Two years earlier, DHS employees had put their agency in a similar spot on the rankings. "On the whole, it is not significantly changed from OPM's 2004 employee survey," Jackson conceded.

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the think tank Center for American Progress in Washington, noted that DHS ranked last on half the examined topics, including how employees rate the overall quality of work done by their unit and the sense of personal accomplishment their work provides. The department placed second to last on another quarter of them.

The 2004 survey was "devastating in its implications about how well government has taken on the important job of protecting the country against attack and preparing for the aftermath if an attack does take place," Lilly said in his analysis.

Jackson and his team didn't respond too well to the survey the last time around, he admits. But Jackson says he had recently taken the job when the 2004 results came out, and they were a reflection of the uncertainty that comes with creating a new department.

"I could try to use that as an excuse for today, but I won't," Jackson says. "Our job is not to lean on that as an excuse, but to fix that and to understand that and to be more responsive to employees' needs."

The difference this time around, Jackson says, is that DHS officials are paying more attention to OPM's survey results. They got the raw data from OPM and were able, for example, to find a subset of employees within one of the seven DHS components that was dragging down communication scores. Jackson would not reveal which group, but he did say he already spoke to the head of that organization to begin fixing the problem. DHS is conducting employee focus groups to learn even more.

The biggest change Jackson and his crew made in the aftermath of the 2006 results is one he doesn't link directly to the survey. A few weeks after his Jan. 30 memo, DHS officials announced they were scrapping plans to move employees off the General Schedule onto a pay-for-performance system, known as MaxHR.

"We won't be as ambitious with this next iteration of our HR management system as we were the last time around," Jackson says.

That effort was so bold that two federal courts ruled against it and the solicitor general refused to bring DHS' case to the Supreme Court. Even though the court cases targeted the labor relations portion of the personnel system, Jackson and his team dropped the entire program, opting instead to go with a small pilot project with a few hundred intelligence employees.

Jackson says his job as a leader is to know when to push and when to back off, and it was time to back off from MaxHR. "Our employees said [the system] was a cause of great anxiety to them," he says. The next administration will have to decide whether or not to try pay for performance, he adds.

The next administration won't include Jackson. He is part academic, with a doctorate in government from Georgetown University and teaching stints at his alma mater; part businessman, with turns at Lockheed Martin Corp., the American Trucking Associations and AECOM Technology Corp.; and part government official, with positions at the Transportation Department under President George W. Bush and in the Education Department under President Ronald Reagan.

"I'm looking for getting a nongovernment badge for a while; I think that's good for me," Jackson says. "And I have no interest in another government job after this one." If Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, have their way, though, Jackson's role will change even before he leaves DHS. The senators, who hold the highest spots on the Senate subcommittee overseeing the federal workforce, introduced a bill in February to elevate the undersecretary for management to the No. 3 spot, right under Jackson.

"I am convinced the existing management structure at the department is insufficient, and is hampering its ability to be successful," Voinovich says. The bill calls for a career employee to serve a five-year term as "principal adviser to the secretary on the management of the department."

Jackson is defending his turf: "I don't think that's helpful. I think that will decrease accountability. It does not take into account that people really need to understand with clarity who the deputy is." He agrees with one part of the proposal: putting more career employees, rather than political appointees, in top spots to ensure continuity into the next administration.

"We've taken this on as a priority," Jackson says, "to look for a succession plan for transition and to make sure that across the department we're putting up people who are appropriately trained, who are career, who are very visible and experienced."

In the meantime, what are Jackson's most realistic goals for the remainder of his tenure? "I don't have any goals that are not realistic," he says.

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