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How Plummeting Morale and Inept Leadership Has Created a ‘Crisis’ at Secret Service

Congressional report suggests dozens of fixes for scandal-plagued agency.

Things at the Secret Service are bad and are going to get worse, according to a bipartisan congressional report released Thursday, with overstretched employees increasingly losing faith in the agency and those who lead it.

After a series of agency scandals in recent years and subsequent hearings, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee published findings titled "U.S. Secret Service: An Agency in Crisis," in which lawmakers unearthed new botched operations and underlying causes at the agency with a “zero-failure mission.” Among its many shortcomings, the Secret Service has not properly disciplined malfeasant employees, brought in new leadership, addressed increasing levels of attrition or considered how to eliminate unnecessary elements of its operations.

All told, the committee offered more than two dozen recommendations to reverse the agency’s pattern of scandals and malpractice. While the agency has been involved several high-profile incidents in recent years, the committee said the problems are much more entrenched than a few bad headlines.

“The committee’s bipartisan investigation found the agency’s recent public failures are not a series of isolated events, but the product of an insular culture that has historically been resistant to change,” the lawmakers wrote.

To properly root out misconduct, the committee said, the Secret Service must first improve its processes for reporting bad behavior. Just one in five employees at the agency feels they would not face retaliation when alerting supervisors to misconduct, according to the findings. Whistleblowers are not adequately informed of their protections, the report said, and the agency depends far too heavily on employees self-reporting their malfeasance.

The committee suggested the Secret Service develop alternatives to self-reporting and that it hold supervisors accountable for not properly dealing with misconduct. The agency should implement immediate training to educate managers on new procedures requiring immediate reporting of improper employee activity and enforce the handing over of investigative responsibility to the inspector general when appropriate.

The Secret Service has often avoided carrying out appropriate discipline, according to the report, and employees are often allowed to resign or retire instead of facing the music. Among the widespread inappropriate behaviors within the agency’s workforce are drinking on the job, harassment and sexual misconduct including solicitation of prostitutes. In addition to those incidents, the committee discovered an occasion in 2014 in which an individual pretended to be a member of Congress at an event and was able to go backstage and speak with President Obama.

Following investigations into misconduct, the Secret Service should “move swiftly” through the disciplinary process, the committee recommended. The agency should streamline that process to make it more effective, the lawmakers wrote. Employees “again and again” stressed the importance of holding individuals accountable, the committee said.

At a November hearing, Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy told a congressional panel he would welcome more authority to fire malfeasant workers. 

Even after the Secret Service deals with its bad apples, the agency will have a long way to go to improve the mood and performance of its employees. Many of the overarching issues the agency faces trace back to the shrinking size of the workforce in recent years. Employees have been leaving the agency at unprecedented rates and management has struggled to fill the vacancies with new hires.

“The attrition rate reflects a fundamental fact about the problems that plague the agency,” the committee wrote. “USSS cannot repair itself without first restoring the trust of its employees and increasing personnel dramatically to meet mission and training requirements.”

Secret Service has attempted hiring surges to fix the problem, but is still struggling to put new employees in place. The agency has recently turned to contractors to address gaps in the short term, but the committee said it should bolster its hiring staff to get new workers in place.

Attrition in recent years traces back to budget cuts forced by sequestration, systematic mismanagement and declining morale, the committee found. The agency’s budget was slashed for several years beginning in 2011, but staffing shortages have remained high even with a funding surge in the last two years. The committee urged Congress to continue to provide the agency with its requested funding.

Satisfaction scores at the Secret Service in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey have dropped precipitously since 2010, and fell in every component of its engagement score in 2015. The agency received a 49 on the engagement index, down seven points from 2014 and 15 points below the governmentwide score. Just one-quarter of Secret Service employees believe their agency is capable of recruiting the right talent for the job, the survey found.

Improving morale will encourage Secret Service employees to stay at the agency and ensure that the agency has enough experienced workers.

“While hiring is a key part of the solution to USSS’s staffing challenges, new hires will not replace the wealth of knowledge and experience that is leaving the agency,” the committee wrote.

Poor morale has likely stemmed from a lack of faith in senior management, the committee found. Just 13 percent of the agency’s employees believe promotions are based on merit, while 7 percent believe pay raises are based on job performance. A majority of workers do not believe their supervisors operate with honesty and integrity or hold respect for senior leaders.

While the agency replaced six of its eight assistant directors in 2015, the replacements all came from within the agency.

“According to many whistleblowers, the new senior leaders resembled the experience and attitudes of their predecessors,” the lawmakers wrote. “Some whistleblowers told the committee that until much of current leadership was replaced, there would be no real cultural change in the agency.”

While the Secret Service attempts to improve management and boost staffing levels, the agency should find ways to shrink its mission that has grown significantly in recent decades. Previous reviews have recommended the agency shed “non-essential missions,” but management has “willfully ignored” those suggestions, the committee said. The Secret Service should be concerned primarily with bodyguard duties and deemphasize its investigatory work, the committee said.

The panel recommended the executive branch conduct an interagency report to determine exactly which functions can be eliminated, and report the results back to Congress. 

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