At DHS, job satisfaction is improving, but it depends on where you sit

DHS has made some big strides on employee morale in recent years. A new special report examines how DHS sparked those improvements and where it goes from here.

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a DHS special report for Federal News Network. Check back for more interviews and content about DHS’ workforce engagement and satisfaction efforts throughout the week.

For years, the Department of Homeland Security’s bottom spot in the annual “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings seemed etched in stone.

DHS finished last out of all large agencies every year between 2012 and 2021. But in 2022, DHS crawled out of the basement for the first time in a decade, to 16 out of 17 large agencies.

And in 2023, DHS jumped up to 14 out of 17 in the Partnership for Public Service’s rankings. DHS’ latest score is tied with the State Department, and it betters both the Justice Department and the Social Security Administration. DHS made these strides in a year when engagement and satisfaction were generally on the rise across federal agencies. 

Source: The Partnership for Public Service’s 2023 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings

In a recent interview with my colleague Drew Friedman and I, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said DHS has made workforce well-being a top priority. He highlighted specific component efforts, like the push to increase pay at the Transportation Security Administration, as well as cross-DHS initiatives, including pulse surveys and “jump teams” that address employee issues.

“We have been intensely engaged with our workforce in understanding what they need and delivering for them,” Mayorkas said. The full interview will run this Thursday, July 11, on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Our interview with Mayorkas is part of a broader series we’re publishing this week looking at how DHS has made key strides with employee engagement and satisfaction. We’ll also explore where the department goes from here.

DHS’ varying progress

The first thing to understand about DHS’ scores and rankings is that the department is not a monolith. DHS employs more than 260,000 people spanning multiple operational components and support organizations. Its missions range from border security to airport screening to cybersecurity to emergency management and more.

At one end of the spectrum, the Coast Guard had an employee engagement score of 76.6 in 2023, while U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) scored a respectable 73.5. Both scores are high for DHS, and firmly in the middle of the pack compared to the rest of the federal government.

On the other hand, Immigration and Customs Enforcement continued to struggle with a score of 54.7 in 2023, while DHS’ Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate’s score of 46.5 ranks 457 out of 459 agency components governmentwide.

Chris Cummiskey, who served as acting undersecretary of DHS for management during the Obama administration, said your experience as an employee at DHS largely depends on where you sit.

“If you’re in region nine in California with FEMA, or if you’re at the southern border with the Border Patrol or in [US]CIS call centers in Vermont, you’re going to have a much different view of what the department means to you,” Cummiskey said. “That, I think, is the biggest challenge, is trying to meet folks where they are and recognizing that in a department with 29,000 frontline managers, that’s really where the most opportunity for change takes place … not necessarily from edicts coming out of D.C.”

For employees at TSA — DHS’ largest operational component by far — 2023 was a banner year for engagement and satisfaction. TSA’s score rose by 12 points last year. The agency saw a major increase in pay satisfaction after employees received a historic salary increase in 2023. Check out Drew’s story for more details on how TSA leaders are looking to build on those gains.

Better-paid employees make for happier employees. But TSA and the rest of DHS saw marginal improvements in other key Partnership categories in 2023, including effective leadership; diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility; and “mission match.”

Those improvements are good news. But the fact is, DHS remains in the lower quartile of all federal agencies when it comes to the categories mentioned above and others, including employee recognition and professional development.

Strengths and challenges

Many DHS employees responded positively to items in the 2023 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey inquiring about their mission, their supervisor, and their customer service. But DHS also saw high rates of negative responses to items regarding management decisions, performance recognition and senior leadership.

Source: 2023 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey

While TSA made strides last year, other large DHS components like ICE and Customs and Border Protection have struggled to move the needle on engagement and morale. The DHS inspector general has reported on how conditions at the southwest border have exacerbated staffing challenges at CBP and ICE, leading to morale problems and potential attrition.

No matter the component, the demanding nature of many DHS jobs means that the department’s senior leaders and supervisors need to be constantly attentive to the needs of their employees. Doing that could help DHS continue its crawl up the Best Places to Work rankings.

“What can they do to compensate for that? Is it more flexibility? Is it better shift scheduling? Is it childcare subsidies?” Cummiskey said. “They’ve got a toolkit to draw from. I think they just have to be innovative going forward. It’s not always going to be pay increases, but what else can you bring to the table? And a lot of times, it’s also just recognizing the work that’s being done and listening to employees and trying to take steps that improve the conditions so that they can do their job.”

Nearly Useless Factoid

By: Derace Lauderdale

DHS has more than 240,000 employees, making it the third largest Cabinet department after the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

Source: AFGE





Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories