Leadership Turnover or Pay Freeze: What's to Blame for Low Morale at DHS?

Mark J. Terrill/AP file photo

A string of temporary leaders in senior management positions at the Homeland Security Department is hurting morale and impeding the agency from protecting the country, according to several lawmakers and former department officials.

At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Thursday, several Republican legislators pointed to 40 percent of Senate-confirmed level positions being either vacant or filled by “acting” individuals as the impetus for consistently low rankings in morale and job satisfaction at the department. Homeland Security’s first director, Tom Ridge, who testified at the hearing, said acting directors and managers do not command the same respect or put forth the same passion as confirmed political appointees.

DHS employees “should never have the question of just who is minding the store,” Ridge said. “Everyone requires a permanent leader.”

Not everyone bought the argument. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the committee’s ranking member, said that while the department has several acting administrators -- including acting Director Rand Beers, who will serve until President Obama’s nominee Jeh Johnson is confirmed -- only one position that requires Senate confirmation remains vacant.

“The officials who are listed as acting are still expected to do their jobs,” Thompson said, “and carry out the functions of the position."

Thompson and other committee Democrats also shifted the blame for the large number of acting managers onto Senate Republicans, who have frequently employed legislative tactics to block Obama’s nominees. Ridge agreed that due to the national security implications, “political gamesmanship” should not be used on DHS appointees. Both he and committee members expressed hope that a recent lowering of the threshold of votes needed to approve executive branch nominees to a simple majority would help expedite the process.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, who also testified at the hearing, said the principal driver of low morale at DHS traces back to compensation and funding concerns.

“I’ve never heard an employee say to me, ‘Why don’t we have a confirmed director?’” Kelley said of her conversations with frontline Homeland Security employees. “They say, ‘Why won’t Congress provide me with a pay raise instead of a freeze? Why won’t Congress give us the funding we need? Why won’t Congress keep their hands off our pensions?’”

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, told the committee DHS should reexamine how many political appointees it has, saying the Defense Department has done a much better job of reducing its managerial turnover. Congress could find another solution in long-term appointees, such as the 10-year assignment given to the FBI director, Stier said. He added DHS needs to find a solution to its leadership problem, as the data show employees like their jobs, just not their bosses.

“They believe in their mission,” Stier said, “they don’t believe they are being well managed.” 

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