Trump’s DHS Pick Promises Better Morale Through ‘Bottom Up’ Approach

Homeland Security Secretary-designate John Kelly testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Homeland Security Secretary-designate John Kelly testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Cliff Owen/AP

Lawmakers at a confirmation hearing Tuesday implored President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Homeland Security Department to operate the organization more efficiently and to take seriously the poor morale of the workforce, and seemed overwhelmingly satisfied with the responses they were given.

John Kelly, a former Marine Corps general, endured a relatively brief slate of questioning from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, lasting a little more than two hours. Compared to the often contentious marathon hearing happening simultaneously for Attorney General-designate Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Kelly’s hearing was a polite affair with no senator from either party questioning the former general’s fitness for the position.

Despite Trump’s promises throughout the campaign to reverse an array of Obama administration DHS policies, Kelly repeatedly vowed to continue at least one initiative championed by current Secretary Jeh Johnson. Kelly commended his likely soon-to-be predecessor on the Unity of Effort program, which Johnson launched in 2014 to boost morale and make the 240,000-employee department more cohesive.

Kelly said he would “build from” the initiative and “take a look around at other bureaucracies” to find practices he can bring to the department. He pledged to improve communication and information sharing between both DHS components and agencies throughout government. Kelly also promised to make “personnel changes” at the department that would not focus on any one individual but could address various staffing discrepancies at high levels.

“There are efficiencies and savings there and I commit to the committee for sure I’ll look at that,” Kelly said. He later added there are a lot of “great people” at the department and he hoped to retain some of them. He suggested building an “acquisition force” similar to the one at the Defense Department.

The potential secretary acknowledged a recruiting problem at the department, which he traced back to low morale.

“The best recruiters are the people already within the organization,” Kelly said. Demonstrating “upward mobility” and “being given a fair shake no matter who you are” will help improve the situation, he said.

He also intimated putting Trump’s policies into place would help improve DHS employees’ job satisfaction.

“We’re not appreciated and we’re not allowed to do our jobs,” Kelly reported rank-and-file employees telling him, “So we’ll take a long, hard look at that right away.” Many throughout DHS components such as Border Patrol and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement have complained Obama-era directives have prevented them from carrying out the laws already on the books. DHS has for years maintained among the lowest morale scores of any agency in government.

When staffing up the department, Kelly said he would look for leaders who “first of all know what they’re doing.” He said they would also “take care of their subordinates” and not retaliate against whistleblowers. As a general cultural principle, Kelly said he would “encourage people to speak truth to power from the bottom up.”

“Sometimes you get an earful and you wish you hadn’t asked the question but you should always ask the question,” he said.

Kelly distanced himself from some notable Trump policies; he called a registry of Muslim citizens unconstitutional and said he would not support a religious test as a condition of immigration into the country. He also said, of Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico, “A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job,” adding observation devices such as drones and sensors where it made little sense to build a wall would also be necessary. 

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