Morale at DHS: Not as bad as you think?

The Department of Homeland Security has launched an employee and family readiness council that senior leaders believe are addressing workforce engagement challe...

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It’s easy to look at the Department of Homeland Security’s last-place ranking on annual government engagement scores and quickly assume the worst.

Like a lot of jobs across government, the mission is stressful and often dangerous for DHS employees. National news headlines, a government shutdown and a conveyor belt of acting political leadership at the department haven’t helped.

Add the stressors that come from life outside the job, and it’s forced DHS to think outside the box when it comes to its multi-year effort to improve employee engagement.

It’s why the department launched an employee and family readiness council over the past year, Angela Bailey, the DHS chief human capital officer, said Tuesday.

All DHS subcomponents sit on the council. Members have been discussing how they as leaders can address five issues employees experience daily: general stress, personal relationship challenges, dependent care, mental health and financial concerns.

Bailey said conversations with employees inspired the department’s focus on “the whole person,” not just the job.

“We’ve delivered training for them, mindfulness training to help them with their general stress,” she told a House Homeland Security subcommittee at a hearing on DHS morale Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve delivered stronger bonds training to help them with their personal relationships. We’ve delivered financial literacy for them to help them with their financial concerns. We’ve also created a mental health website … and introduced them to employee assistance programs.”

The employee and family readiness council will continue its work on those issues in 2020, Bailey said. The council will also examine two new issues this year: social connections and overall employee wellness, she added.

Signs of improvement effort

For the Government Accountability Office, the creation of an employee and family readiness council shows DHS has evolved in its efforts to improve workforce morale and engagement, a challenge since the department’s inception in 2002.

“We have seen DHS make steady progress on the FEVS scores and do it in years when sometimes other agencies have seen a decrease,” Chris Currie, director of GAO’s homeland security and justice team, said. “They are making slow and steady progress, but obviously there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”

The perception of morale at the department depends on how you splice and dice the numbers.

DHS continues to rank last among large agencies on the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, despite some incremental improvements in recent years.

The department’s employee engagement index improved by 2 points in 2019 and has gone up 9% since 2015, Bailey said.

“We’re talking about an average when we talk about DHS,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. “We have components that are exceptional, and then you have ones that are struggling more. Pulling that apart is very valuable.”

DHS’ Office of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction ranked dead last among 415 government subcomponents on the 2019 rankings.

The department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis is also ranked near the bottom, but it did improve its engagement score by 13 points in 2019.

It’s a different story at the Coast Guard, which has consistently improved year after year.

“What plagues [the Transportation Security Administration] is going to be completely different than what the Coast Guard faces,” Currie said. “The Coast Guard is an agency that has been around for many, many years. It has a strong leadership culture. It has its own academy, well-grounded management principles and a structure and hierarchy. It’s understandable that TSA is going to take much longer to the point where they’ve addressed their morale issues.”

Though the Secret Service has historically struggled, the agency continued its multi-year upward trajectory in 2019. Its engagement score improved by nearly 9% last year, following an 11% jump in 2018.

Both GAO and DHS said those scores are promising signs that attempts by Secret Secret leadership to listen to employee feedback and implement child care subsidies, tuition reimbursements and other wellness initiatives are paying off.

“This progress is a result of paying attention to FEVS data and reaching out directly to employees to solicit feedback on root causes of dissatisfaction,” Bailey said. “It is a textbook example and it is paying off.”

Stier attributed much of the success at the Secret Service to its former director, Randolph “Tex” Alles.

Alles left the Secret Service last year. Today, he serves as DHS’ acting undersecretary for management.

“There’s no one better for that position,” Stier said. “There’s a lot more that he could do.”

DHS has had five different undersecretaries for management within the past five years, which Stier said has done little to create continuity for the DHS workforce.

Without a permanent undersecretary for management, it’s been largely up to Bailey to lead DHS’ efforts to streamline hiring and disciplinary procedures.

The department recently established a process management oversight council, which studies DHS’ disciplinary procedures and its response to poor or under-performing employees, Bailey said.

“We brought in our offices of professional responsibility as well as our security offices, to really look at all of the allegations, look at how we’re handling those disciplinary actions [and] performance-based actions,” she said. “[We’re] making sure not just that we’re consistent but that we’re handling those things in a timely fashion.”

It currently takes DHS anywhere from 120-to-240 days to remove an employee, Bailey said.

“The core part of this actually is a management problem as opposed to a rule problem,” Stier said. “Managers aren’t actually selected for their capabilities around hiring and firing people [and] giving good performance feedback, and they’re not held accountable for it.”

As for hiring, DHS plans to at last begin implementing its new, highly anticipated cyber personnel system, which has been under development since 2016, later this year.

Bailey said she expects to use the new personnel system to hire 150 people in 2020, and another 350 in 2021. Those new hires will be placed within CISA and the department’s chief information officer shop, Bailey added.

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