Cause, effect of DHS morale problems tied to leadership vacancies

Despite progress in confirming a new secretary and deputy secretary, DHS still features a large number of officials in acting roles. Former Secretary Tom Ridge ...

Updated: Added a comment from a White House spokesman. (Dec. 13, 2013, at 5:08 p.m.)

The Homeland Security Department is facing a leadership vacuum.

Nearly 40 percent of all political appointee positions either are vacant or filled by an acting official. Even with the Senate poised to approve Jeh Johnson as the DHS secretary and with the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Wednesday approving the nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas to be deputy secretary, this on-going management problem is causing some to ask if there are bigger challenges that need to be addressed across the department.

Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said the White House’s tendency not to fill open spots more quickly sends a bad message to employees and about the importance of homeland security to the nation.

“A recent DHS event thanking an employee on their last day, DHS employees mused, ‘Here comes the A-team, the acting team: acting secretary, acting deputy secretary and acting undersecretary,'” McCaul said Thursday during a committee hearing. “Undoubtedly, these vacancies have a negative impact on mission effectiveness and employees’ morale.”

McCaul said the list of permanent leaders missing in action is long and sad:

  • Customs and Border Protection has not had a Senate-confirmed commissioner during the entire presidency of Barack Obama, and now is on its fourth acting commissioner in five years. The President finally nominated R. Gil Kerlikowske to be CBP commissioner in August. He’s waiting for the Senate to act.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton stepped down in June. McCaul said he was replaced by a political aide to then-Secretary Janet Napolitano who had no previous law enforcement experience. McCaul said that decision is a “violation of the Homeland Security Act.” The White House has not nominated a replacement for Morton.
  • Citizenship and Immigration Services has a director, but Mayorkas will soon become the deputy secretary, leaving another component with an acting leader.
  • The undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis, Carolyn Wagner, left her position almost a year ago. William Tarry has been acting since then.
  • The DHS inspector general had been filled by an acting person, Charles Edwards, for almost three years. Obama nominated John Roth to be the IG in late November.
  • Rand Beers has been the acting secretary of DHS since Sept. 6. This is the third acting role for Beers since he joined the department in 2009.
  • Rafael Borras has been the acting deputy secretary since Sept. 26, leaving his undersecretary for management role to an acting official, Chris Cummiskey.
  • There’s also an acting CFO, Chip Fulghum, acting undersecretary of the National Protection and Programs Directorate, Suzanne Spaulding, and undersecretary for Science and Technology, Daniel Gerstein.

This was the committee’s second hearing on DHS morale issues in the last two years. It held another session in March 2012 focusing on a need for more leadership.

There are several reasons for the vacancy rate at DHS. The Senate’s confirmation process has been slow. The White House hasn’t acted quickly to find, vet and nominate candidates to fill those roles. And of course, the turnover rate at DHS has happened at a fast pace.

“We’re pleased the Senate is taking action on DHS nominees. They just voted Mr. Mayorkas out of committee and we look forward to additional action. There’s a strong team at DHS. Craig Fugate is doing tremendous work at FEMA, John Pistole will continue to do an outstanding job at TSA, and there are five individuals the Senate should confirm without delay: Jeh Johnson, Ali Mayorkas, Gil Kerlikowske to lead CBP, Suzanne Spaulding to lead NPPD, and John Roth to be the Department’s Inspector General,” said a White House spokesman. “Let’s keep this in perspective: out of the confirmed leadership positions, three have yet to be nominated. And you can expect more in the near future.”

The Government Accountability Office found in a report released at the hearing that the rate of vacant political appointee positions at DHS has doubled as compared to last year, while the vacancy rate for members of the Senior Executive Service is up to 11 percent from 10 percent during that same time period.

Many causes for low morale

The exact impact of these long-term vacancies on DHS is unclear. Former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, McCaul and others say the lack of sustained and consistent leadership has deeply affected employee morale.

“You simply cannot build nor can you sustain a mission-focused culture with a high number of vacancies and leaders in non-permanent status,” Ridge said. “At the end of the day, no organization can function effectively without trusted, respected and consistent leadership. Without it, an organization, as my friend Sen. [Tom] Carper has said, is rudderless. The employees of DHS are on the frontlines protecting our homeland every day. They are accountable. They deserve to have those at the top of their chain of command in place and providing accountable leadership as well.”

He said someone in an acting role can’t get the kind of respect and commitment needed to be successful. Ridge said they are cautious in terms of initiatives because in part, they don’t know how long they will be there, and if they are being considered for the permanent position, they don’t want to rock the boat.

Ridge added the Senate shouldn’t use DHS nominees as political pawns. Senators should be expedient in getting hearings completed and voting on the nominees.

Others, such as the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents thousands of CBP employees, and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), say the treatment of these employees by Congress is the real root of DHS morale problems.

“I talk to frontline, port security workers every day, and this is what they tell me. Congress’ actions, including cutting their agencies’ funding, eliminating jobs, freezing their pay and attacking their benefits, are demoralizing them, and making them question Congress’ commitment to their mission,” said Colleen Kelley, NTEU president. “This is the real morale killer. Not just at DHS, but governmentwide.”

Kelley added the fact that many DHS employees had to work during the shutdown while not getting paid and the fact that CBP had to cut overtime to meet reductions under sequestration, makes employees feel like they don’t have the resources to do their job.

Thompson said he finds it difficult to believe that the morale of 240,000 employees is impacted by 15 vacancies at the top. He said morale is crushed in the field by actions such as the pay freezes, government shutdowns and budget cuts.

Numbers don’t lie

No matter the reason, make no mistake, DHS employee morale has been among the lowest in government for the entire time the agency has existed.

GAO said DHS employee satisfaction has dropped 7 percent since 2011, which is nearly double the governmentwide average of a 4 percent decline.

GAO found some interesting connections between vacancy rates and morale.

David Maurer, a director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at GAO, said those components with the highest levels of SES vacancy rates are also are those with the lowest morale, according to the Employee Viewpoint Survey. Maurer said the relationship between the two factors is not clear, but low morale and high vacancies are symptoms of bigger problems.

The viewpoint survey shows more than 27 percent of DHS employees say their leaders generate high levels of motivation, while more than 38 percent say they have a high level of respect for their leaders.

Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said the number one factor that influences engagement of employees is the perspective around the senior leadership. He said agencies that invest in having senior leaders in place and having them work as a team are more likely to be successful in meeting their mission.

The partnership next week will release the annual best places to work rankings for the federal government, which are in part based on the survey results. DHS ranked at the bottom in the large agency category in 2012.

Solutions to DHS’ problems

Witnesses at the hearing made several suggestions to fix both the morale problems as well as reduce the number of senior leadership vacancies.

Stier said one suggestion would be to convert some of the leadership positions into non-political jobs.

“We think the COO ought to be a career or term appointed position so they can have continuous attention to management issues that ought not to change from administration to administration, and they will not get fixed unless you have that long-term horizon,” he said. “GAO is a great organization. Their leader there has a 15-year term. I think that translates into better management in the organization.”

Stier said DHS also should consider the management model used by the Defense Department where they treat people as an asset and put resources into training future leaders.

“You don’t see that so much in the civilian side of government. We need to see that more at DHS,” he said.

McCaul said he’s talked to Borras about bringing some of the best practices from DoD into DHS.

Stier added DHS also needs to take a long-term view of the problem and implement best practices and work most closely with their employee unions.

Root cause analysis needed

GAO’s Maurer said the audit agency made several recommendations on how to improve morale, leadership and other systemic management problems.

“The department should look in-depth, not just at the department level but dig into the individual components and figure out what’s behind these low morale scores. Those are just symptoms, and they need to figure out what are the root causes and take actions to address those causes,” Maurer said. “In a related vein, make sure they have measures and accountability from the very top to ensure those actions are being taken. That is a key part of this as well. The most senior leadership of the department needs to hold component heads and organizations heads within components accountable for addressing this important problem.”

Maurer said there are many underlying problems that need to be addressed, and it will take time and commitment to fix them.

The other issue that needs to be addressed around morale and leadership vacancies is the number of congressional oversight committees DHS answers to.

McCaul said he will hold a hearing in January to address the jurisdictional issues that force DHS to answer to more than 100 committees and subcommittees across Congress.

Finally, Ridge said there seems to be a lack of urgency from the White House when it comes to filling DHS positions. He said that’s something the George W. Bush administration had, which helped ensure openings were filled quickly.

Ridge also added the consolidation of DHS headquarters at the St. Elizabeths complex in Washington would help solve some of the morale and leadership problems. He said scheduling calls and meetings isn’t the same as being able to walk down the hall and talk to the head of CBP or ICE. Congress and the White House must work together to get the funding for the consolidation.


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