Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., said there are some bright spots within DHS from which the rest of the department could learn.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., said there are some bright spots within DHS from which the rest of the department could learn. Susan Walsh/AP file photo

Would Converting Some DHS Political Positions to Career Ones Help Employee Morale?

Good government group recommends this as one way to address long-term challenges with dissatisfaction among employees.

Converting some political positions to career jobs could help the Homeland Security Department offer the consistent leadership it needs to address its long-standing morale problems, a government expert told lawmakers Tuesday.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, testified before the House Homeland Security Committee's Oversight, Management and Accountability panel about the employee morale problems that have faced the department since it was created in 2003. The witnesses and lawmakers agreed the department has made some progress, but still has a long way to go.

“To help provide continuity of operations and a long-term vision for the department, this committee should consider converting political positions responsible for overall management and operations–for example, some of the C-suite positions–to career executive positions to be filled by individuals who are experts in their field, with fixed terms and performance contracts,” Stier said. “Another approach would be to change the expectation that certain politically-appointed positions turn over with a change in administration; inspectors general are appointed without regard to political affiliation and in general they are not asked to resign at the end of a president’s term.”

When positions are held long-term, either by statute or expectation, it shows the department is looking to make sustainable change that is insulated from political pressures, he said. The inspectors general model is a successful example of this, Stier told the panel. He also recommended that the department ensure political leaders focus on employee engagement and skills training and that the department and Congress work together to fill the many vacancies in the department, among other things.

Homeland Security has consistently scored poorly on employee engagement in the Partnership and Boston Consulting Group’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings, based largely on responses to the Office of Personnel Management's annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. In the 2019 rankings, the department was ranked 17 out of 17 for large agencies in this category. It also ranked at the bottom in all but one of the 14 subcategories, which include leadership, pay, diversity support, training and skills development. These are challenges found governmentwide, but the department struggles more than average, Stier said.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., subcommittee chairwoman, said that “despite these concerns, there were some bright spots throughout the department that I hope we can learn from and apply-DHS wide.” Other lawmakers and witnesses (who included Angela Bailey, DHS chief human capital officer; and Chris Currie, Government Accountability Office director of Homeland Security) echoed this sentiment.

During the hearing the lawmakers and witnesses also discussed improved scores in agency subcomponents (the Intelligence and Analysis Office, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Coast Guard, Secret Service, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency); creation of the Employee and Family Readiness initiative to address employees’ physical, mental and financial needs; and initiatives to improve hiring.