DHS shutdown twofer: Burning money and morale at the same time

Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of ChiefHRO.com
& Senior Vice President, ICF International

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Neal

It is hard to open a newspaper or go to a news site on the Internet without seeing a story about the impending shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security. Like most everything in our modern political discourse, we see extreme views, uncivil behavior and more misinformation than information. Here is some real information about what is going on: Money is being wasted and employee morale in DHS is being harmed (yes, it can still get worse).

Shutdown is Not Free. I have been stunned to hear people saying there is no harm in talking about a shutdown, particularly if the House and Senate make a deal to avert it. Shutting down a department with 230,000 military and civilian employees takes planning. People I am talking with at DHS have been involved intensely for the past couple of weeks in the planning process to execute a shutdown order. The department and its components have to decide who works and who stays home. They have to decide which contracts can continue to be executed and which have to stop work. They have to decide which grant programs are stopped and how (while localities that rely on that money are out of luck). They have to decide how to notify all of the employees. They have to talk with the unions who represent employees. They have to answer inquiries from the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management, the House, the Senate, the press and the public, and most of all, the workforce. While they are doing all of that, they have to continue normal operations of the department.

All of the shutdown activity consumes resources and time that should be focused on the mission. Those resources are wasted. The time is gone and can never be recovered. I have actually been told by some folks that DHS should not waste time preparing for a shutdown, because it is not likely to happen. The same folks said that in 2013 and we saw what happened. DHS is preparing because it has no choice. Its mission is vital to our security and failing to prepare for an orderly shutdown would be irresponsible.

How Much Can We Abuse the DHS Workforce? Anyone who pays attention to federal workforce issues knows DHS has morale problems. They began when the department was hastily thrown together in 2003 without proper planning and continue to this day. DHS leaders are taking steps to make things better for the workforce, but it is difficult (maybe impossible) to bring up morale in DHS when 30,000 people are told to go home without pay and wait until the political fighting is over and the remainder are told to come to work without pay until the shutdown is over. Nobody will be paying their bills for them. They are on their own.

DHS employees I have spoken with are angry. They resent being put in this position, are offended that their mission is put at risk over politics and question whether remaining in DHS is worth it. The effect on morale is made worse by the fact that it is the mission that is being put at risk. DHS has morale issues, but it certainly does not have “commitment to the mission” problems.

The DHS workforce recognizes the importance of its work. It is committed to the mission and to serving the American people. It is a good workforce, made up of dedicated men and women who will do what is needed to accomplish the mission. If they are told to show up without pay, they will do it. If they are told their training may be delayed or canceled because of the shutdown, they will live with it. If they cannot get the contract support they need, they will find a temporary way to make do. They will do that because they care. Because they are committed. Because they are the type of workforce any employer would be proud to have. But make no mistake, they can be broken. Their dedication can be crushed, and at some point the mission of DHS will be at great risk of failure. I do not think we are there yet, but we cannot risk getting much closer.


Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

MORE COMMENTARY FROM JEFF NEAL:

What does it mean when the government ‘closes’ due to weather?

How bad would a shutdown be for DHS?

4 steps toward a better hiring process

The truth about the federal hiring process

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