Mood Manager

Homeland Security's new HR chief has his work cut out for him as morale hits bottom.

Few federal agencies have been the brunt of more jokes for their low morale, at least recently, than the Homeland Security Department. But for Tom Cairns, the department's new chief human capital officer, the issue is no laughing matter.

Cairns, who previously served as senior vice president of human resources at NBC Universal, says his 15 years in the media industry taught him to appreciate a good joke. "Jay Leno will pick on the big headlines, and DHS is in some ways an easy target to get a laugh," he says. "At the same time, I realize underneath how seriously the organization and leadership are taking the issues to heart."

Improving morale has been considered imperative for the department since it stood up in 2003, given the challenge of melding 22 agencies under one mantle. The 2006 Federal Human Capital Survey showed that low morale stems from an environment where annual pay raises are not dependent on job performance, promotions are not based on merit, and creativity and innovation are not rewarded. Of the 30 large agencies surveyed in 2006, DHS placed 29th in the categories of job satisfaction, leadership and workplace performance.

But as DHS awaits the results of the 2008 workforce survey, which the Office of Personnel Management finished distributing in late September, Cairns says he is hopeful DHS employees will show more satisfaction with their jobs. "There are things that have been done and will continue to be done to improve morale," he says. "Hopefully, it will be demonstrated in the survey."

After the release of the 2006 survey results, the department quickly moved to shore up personnel programs. DHS agencies drew up action plans and participated in focus groups to help identify best practices and to glean lessons learned from its performance management system. The department created an employee rewards program that is modeled on initiatives at leading agencies.

Another aim is to create a more unified performance appraisal process, which includes encouraging employees to set goals, Cairns says. DHS is beefing up training on how to use the department's automated performance appraisal tool, which will be reworked to be more user-friendly in 2009, he says.

Agencies also have launched their own initiatives to boost morale and to provide new venues for employees to communicate. The Transportation Security Administration, for example, hosts an "idea factory" on its intranet, which allows employees to post comments, debate issues and promote ideas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has enlisted the help of the Gallup Organization to conduct a survey to measure employee engagement. Cairns says he would like to leverage some of those successes across DHS.

Homeland Security has devoted more energy to training programs that groom solid leadership skills rather than focus solely on operational duties, according to Cairns. The goal, he says, is to evaluate those training programs to determine whether they develop quality employees who move up the career ladder.

"These are small microcosms of initial things being done, but they aren't one-time events," Cairns says. "These are things that will be institutionalized and built on."

It's unclear what effect DHS latest workforce initiatives will have on the 2008 survey results. An internal survey in 2007 showed minimal increases in satisfaction over the 2006 results. Leadership and workplace performance improved by 2 percent, but employee scores on talent management and job satisfaction remained unchanged.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents some DHS employees, is not optimistic about the 2008 survey. "We know we're starting this with morale among the lowest of all federal agencies," she says. "I really haven't seen anything that says those survey results are going to change much."

One of the biggest changes at the department was made by Congress late last year, when it passed legislation to grant Customs and Border Protection officers law enforcement officer status, increasing their pension benefits and allowing them to retire earlier. Kelley says those benefits, which took effect in July, probably will help retain CBP officers, but not improve their morale.

The root causes of low morale persist, Kelley says. Agencies are understaffed, she says, and employees who have limited resources to do their jobs-specifically at Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration-often are pressured to complete tasks or inspections quickly. "I guess other agencies could have taken downturns," she says. "But in my view, [DHS is] still going to be at the bottom."

Cairns says congressional limits on funding for human capital has hindered many workforce initiatives, particularly staffing. DHS frequently is faced with new mandates and increasing demands, he says, but without adequate funding the department is unable to recruit and hire the staff necessary to catch up. For fiscal 2008, Congress appropriated $10 million to help address employee morale issues; that figure was $5 million below the president's request. Those constraints could still dog employee morale in fiscal 2009, he says, should Congress pass a continuing resolution providing only stopgap funding for agencies.

"It does hurt you when you don't have the funds available," he says. "Consequently, the jobs don't get filled and then you're criticized for not filling the jobs."

Regardless of the 2008 survey results or fiscal 2009 funding, Cairns says Homeland Security will continue to address job satisfaction. Despite low morale, employees agree on at least one thing-the mission is paramount, he says. A 2007 internal survey showed that 91 percent of employees believed the work they do is important, while 78 percent agreed that the people they work with cooperate to get the job done.

Commitment to mission and a capable workforce are critical to ensuring citizens are safe and the department's goals are accomplished, Cairns says. "I don't want anybody to think that there's any reason to be concerned about their safety because they hear about DHS employee morale," he says. "I think that in the end, the results will be there, and citizens will continue to know that they're safe and that people are out there working on their behalf."

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