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Survey signals low morale among DHS agriculture specialists

“Nothing is going well” is second most-frequent reply to a query on what’s good about the job.

Answers to open-ended questions on a fall survey suggest "morale issues" among agriculture specialists at the Homeland Security Department, according to an analysis released Thursday.

Government Accountability Office officials said a question on what changes the specialists would like to see at work prompted 185 pages worth of responses -- more than four times the volume generated by a query on what is going well. And on the latter question, the second most common reply was, "Nothing is going well," the analysis (GAO-07-209R) stated.

This result is not necessarily surprising, GAO noted. The specialists were moved from the Agriculture Department to DHS at the department's inception in March 2003. They were placed within DHS' Customs and Border Protection bureau, which is responsible for detecting potential terrorists, illegal drugs and other contraband crossing the borders, as well as the prohibited agricultural materials the specialists are concerned with.

"We note that morale issues … are not unexpected in a merger," GAO stated.

"Mergers the size of DHS take time, and not everyone will agree on a personal level that we have reached the optimum level of job satisfaction and performance," said CBP spokeswoman Erlinda Byrd, in an e-mail.

But CBP is committed to the agriculture program, and "supports positive performance, training development and delivery and successful management," Byrd said.

The survey was conducted during September and October and consisted of 31 multiple-choice questions as well as the two open-ended questions. It went out to 827 of CBP's roughly 1,800 specialists, and got a 76 percent response rate.

Answers to the open-ended questions generally tracked with those to related multiple-choice questions, GAO said. Specific problems that were cited included poor working relationships and a concern that the agriculture inspection mission has been overshadowed by other CBP priorities. Of somewhat less concern, but still mentioned in nearly 20 percent of free-form responses, were inadequate training and a lack of equipment and supplies.

The most common positive item mentioned by the agriculture specialists was working relationships. The specialists who viewed such relationships in a positive light noted growing respect from CBP staffers not involved in the agriculture mission, and heightened attention from managers.

Other positive job qualities included salary and benefits, and some aspects of training. Some of the specialists applauded more flexible work schedules and increased overtime pay. On the training side, some noted that new hires are well-prepared.