Low morale at DHS linked to heavy turnover, weak training

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen faults inability to plan long-term budgeting. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen faults inability to plan long-term budgeting. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP file photo

Poor staff morale at the Homeland Security Department is caused in part by heavy turnover among leaders responsible for employee engagement and could be improved through longer-term appointments to top positions, according to Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

At a Thursday hearing convened by the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management, witnesses responded to a “report card” on the government’s third-largest department that showed low favorability scores in federal and nonprofit-sector employee surveys.

“When only 37 percent of DHS employees believe senior leaders motivate them and only 3 percent are satisfied with their senior leaders’ policies and practices, [that’s a] low level of confidence in leadership,” said Chairman Michael T. McCaul, R-Texas, referring to results of the 2011 Federal Employee Viewpoints Survey. Lawmakers also mentioned the Partnership’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” survey, in which DHS placed 31st out of 33 agencies.

“It’s a bad report card,” McCaul said, noting the nine-year-old department has too long been called a “stepchild” and a “whipping boy.” But, he added, while DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and her team “have a long road ahead,” things are moving in the right direction, because “the mission of protecting the American people is just too important.”

Ranking minority member Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., lamented DHS’ high turnover rate -- eight individuals have served as the chief human capital officer, only one for more than two years, he said. Only 6 percent of DHS employees surveyed said they believed promotions were based on merit. The percentage of racial and ethnic minority employees is the lowest average in the government, Thompson added.

“High morale is not an objective but a natural byproduct of high-performing people and organizations,” said key witness Thad Allen, a retired admiral from the U.S. Coast Guard who is working for Booz Allen Hamilton. Environments that promote high morale depend on “the collective impact of workplace conditions, the quality of front-line supervisory leadership, the mission support structure that enables mission execution, and an enduring commitment by senior leaders to the concept that mission performance starts and ends with people,” he said.

Allen cautioned against “confusing a mandate to shrink government and tighten budgets with a referendum on the value of public service.” The path forward, he said, must involve making job responsibilities to clear to those executing the mission and those supporting the mission -- such as acquisitions staff, financial officers, human resources offices, health and safety staff.

DHS should develop a consistent long-term five-year budget plan as mandated by the Homeland Security Act, he said -- his most concrete suggestion. Too often, shifting politics and indecision inside the Office of Management and Budget make it “hard to plan” and prevent components of DHS from establishing consistent and transparent spending, he said.

David Maurer, director of the homeland security and justice team at the Government Accountability Office, noted that going back to surveys taken in 2004, only 56 percent of DHS employees responded that they were satisfied with their jobs compared to 68 percent of employees governmentwide. That gap persisted to some degree until 2011. Less than half of DHS employees said they felt their talents were used well, Maurer said, and the surveys showed a lack of respect for leaders and little planning for the heavy turnover.

He agreed with McCaul that morale has been harmed by the many negative news headlines on DHS components -- airport patdowns of children and grandmothers by the Transportation Security Administration, misspent disaster funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the failed effort to build the SBINet electric fence along the Southwest border.

Maurer cited a “need to look behind the numbers” for fixes to take a “more granular” look at DHS’ component agencies to understand root causes that probably differ by agency. (TSA and FEMA get the lowest survey scores.) The “after-effect of low morale can be an opportunity to brand the agency with taxpayers as a good place to work,” he said.

Catherine Emerson, Homeland Security’s chief human capital officer, defended DHS, saying Napolitano was dedicated to employee engagement. “The department has a strong and broadly framed project to improve morale,” Emerson said.

Homeland Security’s three-pronged effort under the umbrella theme “One DHS” focuses on prioritizing employee engagement, in part through a steering committee, pursuing diversity and strengthening managers’ leadership, she said.

In addition to traditional tools such as performance awards and labor-management forums, Napolitano has been meeting on the issue with heads of all DHS components, with help from the Partnership for Public Service. A top priority is the Cornerstone training program for front-line managers, which will show results by the end of this fiscal year, Emerson said. A pilot training program called Capstone currently involves 20 [[DHS?]]executives.

“Compensation and benefits are actually low on employees’ list and are not the Holy Grail,” said Jeff T. H. Pon, chief human resources officer at the Society for Human Resource Management and a veteran of the Office of Personnel Management and the Energy Department. What has more impact on morale, he said, are “the relationship with a supervisor [and] recognition of the employee’s contribution to the organizational mission.”

Pon counseled DHS not to give up because “it’s still a relatively new agency.” He described the confusion and communication problems that Energy experienced -- “the DHS of the ’70s” -- when it was formed by merging five agencies. He pointed to the public displays in the lobby of Energy’s Forrestal Building, where its “shared mission and story” are told using letters from Albert Einstein and Nobel Prize winners along with the department’s major missions. “It makes employees understand that they have relevance to the department,” he said.

Stier said quality of work life ultimately “is not about being happy but about performance.” Unlike the financial sector, for example, there are no metrics in government performance and many of the problems that DHS faces are actually governmentwide, he said. “But data show that leadership is the No. 1 driver of employee engagement,” which is true even more for senior leaders than for front-line supervisors, he added.

To achieve a “continuity of focus,” Stier recommended that all manager positions be filled with long-term career civil servants so that the “turnover doesn’t happen . . . Almost everything that should be happening in government is happening somewhere, it just needs to spread.” He pointed to the Coast Guard and Secret Service as “bright spots” within DHS, and praised the Transportation Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for improving their standings as best places to work through leadership by Ray LaHood and Sheila Bair, respectively.

Stier also cited the military culture as differing from the civilian one in its belief in “investing in talent as a priority and viewing an employee as an asset and not a cost.”

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