Homeland Security IG: Secret Service Budget Not Sufficient to Improve Hiring

Homeland Security IG John Roth said that "In 2015, it took 298 days to hire a special agent, and 359 days to hire a uniformed officer." Homeland Security IG John Roth said that "In 2015, it took 298 days to hire a special agent, and 359 days to hire a uniformed officer." Cliff Owen/AP file photo

The Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget request for the Secret Service is not enough to meet staffing goals at the agency, which has seen high attrition, low morale and a number of scandals in recent years, a watchdog told a congressional panel Thursday.

“Given the zero-fail mission of the Secret Service, we should be erring on the side of ensuring that they have the kind of resources we need,” Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth told members of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Protective Security. “In my testimony, I noted that they need 8,200 personnel—1,700 more than they currently have. The president’s budget asks for 450 more [in fiscal 2018], which we think is insufficient.”

Roth added that in addition to more funding, the Secret Service must incorporate more in the way of “management fundamentals,” by hiring more human capital specialists, better coordinating hiring, and updating its IT infrastructure.

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“In 2015, it took 298 days to hire a special agent, and 359 days to hire a uniformed officer,” Roth said. “Secret Service will continue to be challenged by the lack of HR staff, which lengthens the hiring processes. At the end of 2015, 32 percent of HR positions at the Secret Service were vacant, and until they’re able to get their hiring right, they will continue to be understaffed, which will exacerbate the problems [of work-life balance and morale], which will lead to greater attrition.”

The Secret Service’s IT infrastructure is so antiquated that while many agencies handle the SF86 form, required for a job candidate to receive a security clearance, electronically, the agency must print out electronically submitted forms in order to process them. And the agency has no system in place to discern how many candidates are in the hiring pipeline at any given time or where they are in the process.

Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles said the agency has begun implementing a number of initiatives to speed up the hiring process, although there is still more work to be done. But he also noted that with low staffing levels, agents often have a poor work-life balance and run into their overtime cap well before the end of a fiscal year, leading to poor morale and high attrition.

“We’ve found several efficiencies in our employment practices, which has reduced the hiring time from 15 months to just four months,” Alles said. “[But while] we’ve made significant progress in our hiring goals, these achievements have the effect of running in place if attrition is ignored.”

Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., who chairs the subcommittee, said it is obvious that the main issue facing the Secret Service is that agents “are just stretched too thin.” And Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman, D-N.J., said the staffing issue means the agency often must sacrifice its investigatory duties in order to sufficiently carry out its mission of protecting the president and his family.

Although Alles stopped short of criticizing the Trump administration’s budget proposal for his agency, he was able to list a number of initiatives he would like to implement given additional funding.

“From a Secret Service standpoint, there are IT technology and infrastructure enhancements, upgrades to the training center [in Raleigh, N.C.], replacing weapons and armored vehicle upgrades,” he said. “those are the top five needs we’re looking at right now, while the No. 1 need continues to be hiring and ramping up staffing levels.”

Katko asked Alles and Roth to return in the coming weeks with a “wish list” of both budgetary and legislative changes that could help the Secret Service better meet its staffing needs and fix the issues surrounding attrition and morale.

“It’s clear some things need to be done, that this budget doesn’t reflect it, and it’s also clear that Mr. Alles may have some constraints about what exactly he can request because of his position, and I understand that,” Katko said. “[Let’s] see what we can do. Obviously there are some systemic things, so do we need to do to retain these highly specialized people: something about pay? About manpower? Instead of top-line messaging, give us the nitty gritty—what is it that’s different from what’s in the budget that we really need to do?”

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