The House on Tuesday approved by voice vote a bill aimed at boosting sagging morale at the Homeland Security Department, which would create an engagement steering committee and a program for non-monetary employee awards.
The 2017 DHS Morale, Recognition, Learning and Engagement (MORALE) Act would seek to reverse a job satisfaction problem that has plagued the department for years. DHS perennially ranks among the worst places to work in annual employee surveys. Morale dropped 15 percentage points at the department between 2010 and 2015, the most of any agency with at least 800 employees.
The House bill would task the department’s chief human capital officer with increasing leadership development, growing employee engagement and designating an employee as the chief learning and engagement officer. An engagement steering committee would consist of representatives from all components, supervisors, rank-and-file workers and labor groups to develop morale improvement strategies.
It would also allow DHS Secretary John Kelly to launch an annual, non-monetary award program to recognize excellence within the department.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the bill’s author, said the measure would give DHS employees the tools they need to confront new responsibilities brought on by the Trump administration.
“It sends a positive message to the DHS workforce by telling them that their contributions to the DHS mission are valued and they have not been forgotten as they endure new stresses and challenges under the Trump administration,” Thompson said. “Given the department’s national security mission and the increasingly scarce availability of resources, it is essential that the DHS workforce be prioritized as they are responsible for carrying out the diverse range of programs that keep our country safe.”
Former Secretary Jeh Johnson, Kelly’s predecessor, acknowledged the issue and prioritized throughout his tenure improving employee morale. In 2016, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey showed DHS’ “global satisfaction index” was at 56 out of 100, up 3 points from the previous year. Still, the department ranked 37th out of 38 large federal agencies.
Kelly said at his confirmation in January he was aware of the problem, vowing to address it by encouraging employees “to speak truth to power from the bottom up.” He also promised to remove President Obama-era policy directives he said were frustrating the DHS workforce.
During an April congressional hearing, the secretary said morale had already ticked up, briskly responding to questions on what policies had led to change with, “My leadership.” Kelly has also pointed to what he identified as false and misleading media reports for dampening employee morale, saying it was preventing Americans from realizing they were being protected daily by “such dedicated and well-trained public servants.” He also cited lawmakers for being overly critical of DHS employees, pointedly telling them to “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
Kelly reiterated his pledge to remove restrictions that he claimed had taken their toll on employees’ job satisfaction and appeared to welcome at least one aspect of the now House-backed bill.
“The best way to improve morale is to let employees do the jobs they were hired and trained to do,” Kelly said in an April speech, “and recognize them for doing it.”