Nominees at 2 very different agencies share similar workforce priorities

Two different nominees to take on leadership positions at two very different agencies both say their top priority is focusing on their organization’s workforce.

Both agencies face different workforce challenges, but Henry Kerner, the president’s pick to be the U.S. Special Counsel for the Office of Special Counsel, and Claire Grady, the nominee to be the undersecretary for management at the Homeland Security Department, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee they want to send positive messages to organizations’ employees.

OSC for the last several years has been asked to do more with less. The agency, which has about 130 employees, received more than 6,000 new matters in 2016, a 53 percent increase in prohibited personnel practice complaints since 2010.

“The top priority will be to make sure that the employees at OSC know that I believe in their mission, that I believe in what they’re doing and that it is our job to protect all the federal employees,” Kerner said during his June 28 nomination hearing. “We’re going to do so independently, we’re going to do so fairly and we’re going to do so aggressively. We’re going to protect the workforce to the best of our ability.”

Senators emphasized the important role that whistleblowers and an independent OSC can play, particularly as some agencies had been told to button up on their communications with the press and Democratic members of Congress.

“At a time when our federal workforce is undergoing a number of new challenges, such as reorganization, at the behest of the Office of Management and Budget, it’s important that the Special Counsel remain a just, fair and unbiased voice when it comes to protecting federal employees when they report any wrongdoing within their respective agencies,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said.

Kerner, who spent nearly 20 years as a federal prosecutor in California, played a key role on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee staff and served as staff director for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations under Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said his interactions with whistleblowers in the past have taught him about the impacts they have on federal policy.

He said he’s come to realize what influences some federal employees to speak out.

“When you have a federal workforce, you have to show that they’re appreciated,” Kerner said. “You have to protect them. You have safeguard them and make sure that when they blow the whistle, when they expose waste, fraud and abuse and other violations, that they’re going to do so safely, that we appreciate them for doing that.”

Some Democrats, including committee Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) questioned whether Kerner’s past experiences working with members of the Republican Party would influence his leadership at a small, independent agency.

“When you said I’m close to Republicans, I’ve worked for Republican office-holders, but not on campaigns,” Kerner said.

He promised that he would respond to questions and requests for information from members of Congress, regardless of their political party.

Kerner also described a series of goals for OSC in the future.

He wants to build on the success the agency saw under former Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, when OSC saw a steady rise in whistleblower disclosures and prohibited personnel complaints during her tenure.

The agency managed a heavier caseload with only small boosts to its budget by making a few organizational changes, Kerner said.

“They have combined certain functions,” he said. “They have become more efficient. So for example, they’ve assigned one lawyer to four different functions as opposed to having four different people looking at it. Making those efficiencies they’ve been able to utilize their resources better.”

In addition, Kerner said he wants to continue much-needed upgrades to the agency’s IT systems and cybersecurity posture and improve education and outreach with agency and congressional staff.

Finally, he wants to emphasize the power of litigation to promote accountability, prevent future violations from agency managers and strengthen OSC’s bargaining position when negotiating settlements for whistleblowers.

He reminded the committee of OSC’s role as a prosecutor, which he said should be used more often to send a message to agency managers who retaliate against whistleblowers.

“By utilizing prosecutorial tools and going in front of the board and holding managers who punish people for whistleblowing … accountable for their actions through discipline, you send a message that whistleblowers will be protected,” he said.

DHS workforce challenges

It’s no secret that DHS has struggled to improve low employee morale. Employee engagement scores improved slightly in 2016 for the first time after six consecutive years of decline. It’s been a point of frustration for the Senate committee.

“We hear the same answer every year that I’ve been on this committee, which has been my entire term in the Senate,” Heitkamp said. “We talk about morale at DHS. We talk about recruitment and retention. We talk about the lack of consolidated, visionary mission [and] understanding. We need to quit talking about it. We need to develop strategies that actually achieve the result.”

Grady said she completely agreed. She promised to work with the DHS chief human capital officer to look at recruitment and retention practices across the department and develop new strategies to more quickly fill vacancies.

“The department has started to make progress and will continue to make progress, because instead of studying the problem, there are action plans that are resourced associated with furthering the efforts of employee engagement,” she said. “Those actions plans are based on analysis of data at a lower-level, not looking at the department in aggregate, which significantly masks the actual problems. You want to go after the root cause, not the symptom.”

The president’s charge for DHS to hire 10,000 new immigration officers and 5,000 new border patrol agents will also be a big project for Grady, who said deputy DHS secretary Elaine Duke and CHCO Angela Bailey are already considering new ways to attract top talent to those positions.

Grady, currently the Defense Department’s director of defense procurement and acquisition policy, began her 25-year federal career as a GS-7 intern and rose through the ranks as a member of the Senior Executive Service. She’s held leadership positions at the component and headquarters level at both the departments of defense and homeland security.

Grady said she’s learned several lessons from her work at DoD that she’ll bring to DHS.

“Acquisitions live and die by getting the requirements right,” she said. “By getting the requirements right, I mean meeting the needs and the mission gaps of the end users who are actually on the front line.”

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