Secret Service facing an uphill battle to improve employee morale and lower attrition

The President’s 2018 proposal calls for a roughly 1 percent boost to the Secret Service budget and 450 additional personnel next fiscal year.

But neither the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general, nor Republicans and Democrats in Congress say those extra dollars or new hires are enough to boost employee morale, improve retention rates and turn around a beleaguered workforce that’s been asked to do more with less.

“We estimate, generally, we’re short probably $200-300 million a year … to actually hire people [and] have the right technology in place,” Randolph Alles, the new Secret Service director, said during a June 8 hearing before the House Homeland Security Transportation and Protective Security Subcommittee.

He’s the first director in the past 70 years who comes from outside the agency to lead the Secret Service.

Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), the subcommittee’s chairman, asked the Secret Service to develop a “wish list” of sorts, or a series of specific recommendations and legislative suggestions for the agency moving forward.

“It’s clear that some things need to be done,” he said. “It’s clear that this budget doesn’t reflect it. And it’s also clear that … Director Alles may have some sort of constraints with respect to what exactly he’s going to request because of his position.”

The Secret Service faces a perpetual cycle of staffing shortages, which contribute to the agency’s poor morale and high attrition rate.

Alles said he’s implemented some recommendations from the DHS IG and Secret Service senior leaders to address low morale and high attrition rates.

Reporter Nicole Ogrysko discusses this story on Federal Drive with Tom Temin

For example, the Secret Service has shortened its hiring process, he said. It once took the agency 15 months to bring on new employees. Now, Alles said the time-to-hire is closer to four months. The agency expects to hire roughly 300 special agents, 280 uniformed division officers and 260 administrative, professional and technical staff by the end of fiscal 2017.

DHS IG John Roth said he’s seen some encouraging signs of progress but the Secret Service’s personnel challenges are significant. The agency needs to hire about 1,700 more employees by 2022, in order to achieve a target staffing level of 8,200 workers and successfully complete its operational and investigative priorities, Roth said.

The Secret Service saw more attrition in fiscal 2016 than any other point in its history, the IG added. Over the past six years, the agency has only once been able to hire more people than it lost in a single year. The Secret Service is on track to meet that trend again by the end of this fiscal year, Roth said.

In addition, the agency lacks enough human resources personnel to write appropriate position descriptions and conduct work quickly to bring on new hires, Roth said. Outdated IT systems also slow the agency down in tracking open positions and new hires. The Secret Service has two data systems that are not interoperable with each other. Agency HR personnel have to manually transfer hiring data from one system to other, Roth said.

“When we asked for data, for example, they couldn’t give us real-time data as to how many people were in the pipeline [and] where they were, because they didn’t have any data systems to track the kind of hiring they need,” he said. “This is something that is fundamental and basic in any private corporation or private industry.”

Staffing shortages have caused problems up and down the Secret Service for years.

“During our review of the 2014 White House fence jumping incident, for example, we found that staffing shortages for uniformed officers led to excessive overtime, fatigue, low morale and attrition,” Roth said.

The Secret Service sat last among 305 agency subcomponents on the Partnership for Public Service’s 2016 Best Places to Work  rankings. Overall employee engagement dipped to a score of 32.8 last year, compared to 33.4 in 2015. And the Secret Service also has the lowest employee morale of any other law enforcement agency.

“One of the impressive things about the agency is they get the job done no matter what,” Alles said. “As I tell them, that’s good and that’s bad. It’s good that they’re doing the mission. The bad part is, where’s the work-life balance for the agency, for our uniformed division officers and our special agents?”

Yet, Alles acknowledged, he has an uphill battle to fight.

The agency estimates it will have 500-700 officers who will exceed the mandatory pay cap on overtime hours this year. Many agents and officers have their days off canceled as they’re called in to take on additional work to protect President Donald Trump and his family when they travel. Alles said Secret Service investigators are often pulled in to do protective work, which puts further strains on the agency.

“The number one thing I need to work on is in the area of leadership,” Alles said. “All these things stem out of that particular area. Morale, resources, hiring — all those things stem out of that particular area.”

Meanwhile, Roth’s office would see a 9-10 percent budget decrease under the president’s 2018 request.

“That represents about a 15 percent decrease in the number people that we would have,” he said. “It will decrease the tempo of the kinds of audits, inspections and investigations that we will do at the same time that the department itself is growing by about 6 percent. We are going down while the department is going up, and they are going up in very high-risk areas.”