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Front-Line Morale Problems Are Threatening Homeland Security

The White House intruder is only the tip of the iceberg.

Responding to a recent article in The Washington Post about leadership turnover affecting the Homeland Security Department’s ability to tackle evolving threats, Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a letter to the editor: “Virtually every position at the top of this department will have been filled, and they will be occupied by highly qualified public servants.”

But his department’s workforce problems are not limited to filling political positions. These columns appeared in the same week as the White House intruder and reports of a “nosedive” in morale at the Secret Service. Even staff in DHS’ Office of the Secretary reported morale problems in last year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

DHS workforce concerns are not new. A search for “DHS morale” on Government Executive found 133 articles dating all the way back to the department’s creation. In a little more than a decade that is roughly one per month—and that’s only in one publication.

The Post article used language similar to previous columns on DHS: “a dysfunctional work environment, abysmal morale, and the lure of private security companies that have proliferated” since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Those claims were reinforced by a statement from the Homeland Security Institute at The George Washington University and in coverage by CBS News and other media outlets.

The Office of Personnel Management’s annual employee survey highlights the problems. Among the Cabinet-level departments, DHS has consistently had the lowest scores on Leadership & Knowledge Management, Results-Oriented Performance Culture, Job Satisfaction, Employee Engagement and Intrinsic Work Experiences. OPM surveys over the past several years confirm that morale is deteriorating—and that has to affect performance.

Another recent report, the 2014 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, made it clear that “people management” problems are a low priority at DHS. This 30,000-foot report has 104 pages, but it includes only a single reference to DHS employees and none to employee engagement, the word “performance” appears only two times, and there are only passing references to the DHS workforce. For an organization dependent on the responsiveness and attentiveness of the workforce, the report is effectively silent on workforce management issues. The OPM survey reinforces that glaring omission.

The Bush administration’s goal was to create a “single, unified homeland security structure” that would protect the country. At the time, I was a member of a National Academy of Public Administration team developing and drafting a report on federal pay. DHS had a concurrent project to plan its long forgotten pay-for-performance system, MaxHR. We had two or three meetings with DHS human resources specialists to discuss their plans.

I recall reacting to statements about creating a unified DHS culture. Having worked in a corporate conglomerate early in my career, I knew that was not only unlikely but it was also undesirable. Efforts to compel a consistent culture would conflict with the values, customs and beliefs that have held these agencies together. Successful organizations have strong cultures that reinforce desired behaviors. Culture change initiatives frequently fail—and that’s within existing organizations. Mergers have failed because of incompatible cultures.

Homeland Security was formed from 22 agencies, each with its own history and culture. As with a conglomerate, the value added is in the operating units. That’s where the nation’s security is maintained; that’s where breaches can occur. No one at DHS headquarters could have stopped the White House intruder.

The point is that the front line protecting our nation’s security is inside those 22 agencies—the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Transportation Security Administration and more. Workforce problems need to be addressed at that level. Political appointees are important, but they work at a distance from the front lines.

The federal government pays lip service to workforce issues but the track record is distressing. Agencies are stuck in a statutory and political time warp. The White House incident should be a wake-up call.

An inevitable problem is the dissatisfaction of younger employees who have trouble adjusting to working in what might be described as paramilitary organizations. That’s probably unavoidable with individuals accustomed to a level of independence and to voicing opinions.

The possibility that an incident can occur at any time means employees need to be empowered to act, to know what’s expected, to know they are trusted, and to be assured of the support and teamwork of co-workers. The unknown increases the need to be attentive and diligent. And recently, budget cuts have increased normal workloads.

The situation may be exacerbated by a common problem across government—agencies have not invested in developing effective managers and supervisors. It would be more problematic where the culture squelches questioning and criticism. Research shows that first-level supervisors have a greater impact on performance than an organization’s leaders.

One suggestion is to conduct a series of off-site focus groups where employees can feel free to voice opinions and suggest changes to improve the work environment. Employees want to contribute to the success of their agencies—except for the few who are alienated. They know what the problems are—or they think they do—and want the opportunity to be heard. They want to make a difference.

This is one pay problem that should not be ignored. Security expertise is in high demand, and that means attractive, well-paying career opportunities at all levels. The turnover of trained, proven performers is more costly than salary increases. None of the alternatives—vacancies, less-qualified hires or outsourcing—is satisfactory. The General Schedule is not the answer. The classification standard for the Security Administration job series was last revised in 1987. Requisite expertise is changing rapidly. The solution is clear: a separate occupational pay system similar to the Law Enforcement Officer system, with the flexibility to stay competitive. It would take no more than six months to plan.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

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