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For DHS, improving employee engagement is not one-size-fits-all

The Homeland Security Department’s strategy to move out of the cellar of the Federal Employee Viewpoint survey isn’t based on one or two or even five specific goals or milestones.

DHS is doing something a bit more novel.

“We are not trying to have a one-size fits all. Each component has its own employee engagement plan for this year with clear milestones, approach and focus based on root cause analysis of where they understand the concerns are in their employee population. That’s a big change,” said Russ Deyo, the Homeland Security Department’s undersecretary of management, in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. “Each of these plans have been signed by the chief or leader of the component and they own it. We have an employee engagement steering committee, which I chair, that meets at least every month with really dedicated people representing each of the components where we talk about ideas and opportunities and problems they are facing in delivering with their plans and sharing ideas.”

Deyo said that’s the bottom up approach. DHS also is taking a top-down approach where his organization is providing other support to managers.

“We are focused on giving people guidance about communication. We just put out an email on our Leadership Connect resource online, giving simple guidance — from Angie Bailey our chief human capital officer — about how to have a town hall,” he said. “Everyone knows you need to have a town hall, but it has to be a town hall that is meaningful, that has that two-way conversation.”

By focusing on communication, collaboration and specific and long-standing roadblocks, Deyo and Secretary Jeh Johnson are expecting real progress in 2016 and beyond.

For the last five years, DHS has scored among the lowest of all large agencies when it comes to overall satisfaction and employee engagement. In 2015, DHS scored a 53 on the survey’s engagement index, down from 60 in 2011. Its ratings on how leaders lead, intrinsic work experience and overall global satisfaction all declined over the past year.

DHS did see an uptick in the ratings of its supervisors, earning a 65 in 2015 up from a 64 in 2014.

DHS’ specific data shows employees like what they do, are willing to put in extra effort or come up with new ideas to improve how they meet their mission. But they say poor performers are not dealt with properly, good work is not recognized in a meaningful way and employees do not feel personally empowered to be creative or innovative.

Johnson said back in September when the new data came out that he was disappointed with the results, but promised improvements across the board.

The engagement issue was one of the reasons Johnson called Deyo out of retirement to take on the undersecretary role.

Johnson knew Deyo from his time at Johnson & Johnson, where Deyo spent 27 years in an assortment of senior roles eventually rising to vice president of administration and general counsel.

“He’s a very persuasive person as you know,” Deyo said of the phone call he received from Johnson back during the winter of 2014. “But then we went through a pretty thorough process to make sure I fully understood the implications of the job, the scope of the job. Like DHS, Johnson & Johnson is a decentralized, large organization and some of the responsibilities are very similar so I had a pretty good sense of what I was getting into.”

Since receiving Senate confirmation in May 2015, Deyo has focused on four integrated management priorities aligned to Johnson’s Unity of Effort initiative.

Strengthening resource allocation and reporting reliability

This is led by Chip Fulghum, the DHS CFO and deputy undersecretary for management, and Jeffery Orner , the chief readiness support officer, who are focusing on changing how DHS develops its budget based on mission and not by component.

“We are working hard to modernize our financial systems so that all the components are feeding into a common system so that we can more accurately evaluate our financial opportunities,” Deyo said. “We are on the road to a common financial system. It’s based upon using some common suppliers of those systems, so we are working with the Department of Labor, for example, to line up there. It will not be one single system, but people feeding into a common system.”

DHS also is consolidating its real estate footprint with a goal of reducing how much office space it pays for and oversees by 1 million square feet over the next few years.

Acquisition excellence

Deyo said DHS has done tremendous work over the last few years to have a consistent acquisition process that takes into account the needs of the components and works to meet their missions collaboratively. He said one obvious benefit is the use of shared services and buying products or services as one entity. He said in 2015 DHS saved $450 million.

“One of the key elements of the Unity of Effort is the creation of the Joint Requirements Council (JRC) — multiple components represented led by a component leader that will define in a critical acquisition what is the capability we need to acquire? Let’s make sure we have the input of all the components, let’s define those requirements and let’s not move forward to the next step of the acquisition process until we get that right. It’s a huge improvement,” Deyo said. “This organization has really made a difference in both having the financial knowledge to determine if it’s going to be worth the cost to fulfill this capability requirements, and then absolute clear definition of the requirements before it goes forward. It takes discipline, it takes regulatory, but having all those components represented and they understand the mission purpose, you get buy-in and people see the value.”

Improving cybersecurity and buying of IT systems

Deyo said DHS wants to take advantage of the cloud, agile development and innovations. He said DHS also is identifying what are the agency’s highest priorities to modernize and improve IT systems. The JRC and a focus on better IT project management came to a head in February when Deyo told Senate lawmakers about plans to improve and consolidate multiple human resources IT systems.

Recruit, retain and develop talent

Deyo said DHS’ cybersecurity and IT workforce is among its biggest focus areas. “We need efficient and effective end-to-end hiring processes. We’ve taken that process apart, looking at where we can reduce time and make it work better,” he said.

Deyo said all four of these priorities are designed to drive sustainable management improvements.

But it’s that last one that where he’s pushing hardest.

“Leadership is out meeting with people. The secretary and deputy secretary are both having town halls,” he said. “We have a system called Leaders Alert, which is an online system that provides a lot of very useful information that can help a supervisor at whatever level they are at make sure that they are learning how to engage and creating the culture, openness and support our people need to fulfill their mission. We give guidance through this all the time and there is a whole list of both leadership training is available, recommendations on how to have a town hall that is effective, recommendations on how to have difficult conversations and all kinds of different approaches to help them improve their leadership capabilities.”

Deyo added DHS will hold a meeting with all its Senior Executive Service members this spring to continue to emphasize better engagement.

Deyo said DHS is measuring success of the engagement focus in several ways. He said some of the components are using focus groups, while others are using short online surveys to gather feedback.

“I’m all about sustainability and improvements that can continue,” he said. “I don’t like to focus short term on survey results, but that’s the one metric that is out there. So we use that and try to follow up and get specific information about what’s driving those outcomes. Sometimes a group is making important change that may not make the workforce happy, but it’s important change that will help us deliver the mission and make it a better place to work longer term. You have to use judgment on this. I say it’s a combination of being comfortable with the plans that are really focused on improving the culture, supporting people and making it easier for them to fulfill the mission.”

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