Can Congress legislate morale improvements?

Former Homeland Security CHCO Jeff Neal agrees that improving morale at DHS is a good idea. He just wonders if Congress is taking the right approach.

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

On June 20, the House of Representatives passed the Department of Homeland Security Morale, Recognition, Learning and Engagement Act of 2017, also called the DHS MORALE Act. The bipartisan bill now goes to the Senate.

The DHS MORALE Act, sponsored by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), is intended to improve morale in DHS by requiring a number of specific actions. The issue of DHS morale is not new, nor is it likely to be solved by the activities the bill requires. The following is a look at what the bill requires, along with my assessment of how much of a difference each requirement might make and some thoughts on what it would take to see real improvement.

Jeff Neal discusses this story on Federal Drive with Tom Temin
  • An assessment, carried out by the chief human capital officer, of the learning and developmental needs of employees in supervisory and non-supervisory roles across the department and appropriate workforce planning initiatives. The idea here is sound, but much of DHS is already assessing training needs, particularly with respect to new employees. Ongoing training is important, and strengthening the assessment of those needs can make a difference. I say it can, rather than will, because it also has to be accompanied with delivery of the training the workforce needs. An assessment of needs with no budget to deliver them is just a wish list. DHS Secretary John Kelly is a retired U.S. Marine Corps general, so he comes from a background where training is recognized as mission critical. That should help DHS to get the resources it needs to train its people.
  • Maintain a catalogue of available employee development opportunities, including the Homeland Security Rotation Program pursuant to section 844, departmental leadership development programs, interagency development programs, and other rotational programs. Like the first requirement, this one is only one step in a process that ends with employees actually being able to get the training they need.
  • Ensure that employee discipline and adverse action programs comply with the requirements of all pertinent laws, rules, regulations, and federal guidance, and ensure due process for employees. This provision does not really add anything. DHS is already required to follow the rules for disciplinary and adverse actions.
  • The chief human capital officer may designate an employee of the department to serve as a chief learning and engagement officer. DHS has had a chief learning officer for years. In Washington, we have this tendency to think that designating a “chief” is a solution to problems. The real solution is typically far more than a new chief and always involves the right combination of authority and budget. With the authority to drive solutions and the dollars to make them happen a new chief can make a difference. Without them, nothing happens.
  • Establish an employee engagement steering committee, including representatives from operational components, headquarters, and field personnel, including supervisory and non-supervisory personnel, and employee labor organizations that represent department employees, and chaired by the under secretary for management. This committee would be responsible for identifying “factors that have a negative impact on employee engagement, morale, and communications within the department, such as perceptions about limitations on career progression, mobility, or development opportunities, collected through employee feedback platforms, including through annual employee surveys, questionnaires, and other communications, as appropriate.” It would also be tasked with identifying solutions and tracking their implementation, as well as advising the secretary on efforts to improve employee engagement, morale, and communications within specific components and across the department. The bill requires both department-wide and component plans to deal with employee engagement and morale. I always support obtaining data to inform decision making. If this committee can bring attention to issues that drive morale, and influence concrete actions to deal with the problems, it has a chance of making a difference.
  • Establish an annual employee award program to recognize department employees or groups of employees for significant contributions to the achievement of the department’s goals and missions. The authority to give awards to employees is not new. DHS, like all other federal agencies, already has the authority to give honorary and monetary awards to its employees. DHS and its components use that authority. There is a chance that a stronger program that calls attention to the many accomplishments of the DHS workforce could help with morale.
  • No additional funds are authorized to carry out the requirements of this act and the amendments made by this act. Such requirements shall be carried out using amounts otherwise authorized. This is what is called an unfunded mandate. DHS gets no new money to carry out the requirements of the bill. That means they are going to have to reallocate existing resources to carry out the requirements of the bill. I know the CHCO’s office has lost both money and positions in recent years. It was not generously staffed to begin with, so those cuts have made it more difficult for the CHCO’s office to do its job. Given how critical morale issues are, and how dependent DHS is on its people, I would like to see real money devoted to this program. Without it, people who are already stretched thin will struggle to carry out the requirements of the bill.

In his testimony supporting the DHS 2018 budget, Kelly raised the issue of a DHS Authorization Act. People who follow government are probably familiar with the National Defense Authorization Act. It lays out broad program mandates for the Department of Defense, and is the vehicle through which much of the debate about defense priorities occurs. You probably have not heard of the DHS Authorization Act because it does not and has never existed. Kelly testified that “The department has not been authorized during its existence, and I look forward to supporting the passage of legislation that provides us with the necessary authorities to successfully fulfill our primary task of keeping the American people safe in a more streamlined and unified manner.” He also said of his workforce in a speech in April, “They have been asked to do more with less, and less, and less. They are often ridiculed and insulted by public officials, and frequently convicted in the court of public opinion on unfounded allegations testified to by street lawyers and spokespersons.”

Federal News Radio reported that Kelly said the public and public officials should err on the side of assuming that the agency’s employees are acting within the law. And for members of Congress who don’t like the laws, Kelly said they “should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.” Perhaps Kelly was a bit strident in his defense of his workforce, but he made valid points on both the DHS Authorization Act issue and the treatment of the DHS workforce.

I wrote about this issue in a blog post in 2014. The constant criticism of the DHS workforce by the press and politicians, and some members of the public, has a corrosive effect on morale. I am not saying that bills such as the DHS MORALE Act are a bad idea, but a far more effective solution would be to support the men and women of DHS and make it clear that we value what they do. The time I spent in DHS totally changed my perception of the department and its workforce. I saw people who work their butts off for the American people, and who get very little support. In that respect, and on the authorization issue, DHS is treated like the poor stepchild compared to the Department of Defense. We finally learned that we should support our warfighters and value the work they do. Maybe if we extended those lessons to DHS, we really would see some big improvements in morale.

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

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