Secret Service needs more employees, stronger retention practices, NAPA panel finds

Dismal engagement scores in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey prompted Secret Service leadership to engage the National Academy of Public Administration. NA...

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By all accounts, the Secret Service is an agency badly in need of reform. Dismal engagement scores in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey prompted agency leadership to engage the National Academy of Public Administration. NAPA’s panel has now concluded its work with a long list of recommendations and findings. Panelist and longtime federal executive John Koskinen spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: John, good to have you on.

John Koskinen: Delighted to be here.

Tom Temin: I feel like I’ve spoken to you over the past at least 25 years in a variety of federal positions that you’ve had. You don’t get tired of this stuff, do you?

John Koskinen: No, I call it my checkered employment career. So there’s been some variety, although a lot of it has been under stress.

Tom Temin: Well, this was something you could do objectively as a retired federal executive, so maybe it wasn’t quite as stressful. But just give us a sense of what the big issues are with the Secret Service. They’ve been coming out in dribs and drabs over the years.

John Koskinen: Well, to the great credit of the agency leadership, they reached out to NAPA to take a look at both their progress in responding to previous recommendations, including a 2016 NAPA report, but with a particular focus on employee engagement. They wanted us to take a look at the initiatives they’d already undertaken, and then make recommendations for other actions they could take.

Tom Temin: Well, what are the basic problems with employee engagement? I mean, they get low scores, but there must be some underlying issues that cause that.

John Koskinen: And like anything, the more you get into it, the more complicated it gets. But overall, the basic problem the service faces and the management’s been trying to deal with is there just aren’t enough employees. The nature of their work has gotten more complicated. They have the protection operations for the president and various federal executives, as well as physical sites. But they also have financial crimes investigations. People have said it used to be just guys in their basement counterfeiting money, and now you’re dealing with cybersecurity crimes and financial shenanigans around the world. So they’ve had historically a problem of keeping up just for the number of people, which means that the existing workforce get stressed out over time. And so there’s a higher attrition rate than they would like. But in the meantime, the work life balance for a lot of the executives and employees is really not what it ought to be.

Tom Temin: And I suppose if you are having people famously protect the president and other high level officials, you don’t want burned out or exhausted people doing that.

John Koskinen: That’s right, it’s a zero failure operation. They’ve got to do everything that you would expect, and then some. So you want both to retain the expertise that executives and employees develop over the years and train people properly. But again, as you know, that what you don’t want is people working excessive overtime and long hours so that both their work life balance is not appropriate. And then they also run some risk of just getting burned out, which is why the attrition rate is a problem.

Tom Temin: And how do these issues of insufficient staffing manifest themselves? People have to do double shifts, or they have varied work weeks, and they never know when they’re going to be called in? How does that all play out?

John Koskinen: That’s exactly what happens. They have less ability to control their private time sometimes. Some areas — uniform division, for instance — is averaging over 500 hours a year of overtime. That’s more than 10 hours a week, on top of their normal workweek. And so it reflects itself in either extended duty on the times they’re on duty, or coming in on days that they should have off so they have fewer days off than would otherwise be appropriate.

Tom Temin: And if you would, maybe just give us a brief sense of how the panel went about doing the research here.

John Koskinen: NAPA was retained at the end of 2019. We had the panel had its first meeting with George Mulligan, the COO, and Susan Yarbrough, the Human Resources director, in February of 2020, which was a significant month because that was the start of the pandemic. So the challenge was to conduct the interviews and the research in the middle of everybody trying to figure out who could go to work and who could not. The agency couldn’t have been more cooperative and supportive of the effort. A lot of interviews, as we’ve all discovered, were conducted either by phone or over telecommunication issues like zoom. So in a lot of ways. other than that there were fewer in-person visits than normally would take place, we felt in the research team, led by Daniel Ginsberg at NAPA, felt that they really had access to all the people and the information that they needed. But it was a little more challenging than normal, since the bulk of this work was done during the pandemic.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with John Koskinen. He’s former IRS commissioner and also a member of the National Academy of Public Administration panel that has been looking at the Secret Service. And what was your sense of the tone of the employees — that is to say, did they just want to quit and get out and the heck with it? Or did you sense that maybe they support the mission, wanted to be part of it, but really wanted things to get better?

John Koskinen: Well, this is a remarkable agency. It’s a can-do agency. Employees are dedicated to the mission; they understand the significance and importance of it. You know, if you’re protecting the White House or the president or the high level government executives or foreign missions, you understand the seriousness of the work. And so as a general matter, we found, I think, that the employees are dedicated to the work. They actually like the agency. And the challenge becomes, as we discussed earlier, that after a while, they just get burned out. They are highly trained and desirable, so they can easily move to another law enforcement or protective service with a lot less pressure on them, both from the nature of the mission and the number of hours they’re working.

Tom Temin: And how is it that staff shortages continue year after year, decade after decade really, administration after administration, agency leader after agency leader. Anyone ever able to make the case to Congress that you need more funding to increase the staff?

John Koskinen: Well, they do make that case. And the Congress has increased the staff over time. Part of the challenge is that the nature of the work keeps expanding. There’s a specific set of protectees by statute, but that keeps getting expanded, because you know, everybody who’s a cabinet secretary or elsewise would love to say they have Secret Service protection. And so there’s been a kind of mission creep by including more personality events than historically. And then every time you add someone, you obviously increase the need for staffing. So the agency was not anxious to claim that they ought to have some of those protectees cut back because they really are anxious to please in there. They love their work. But one of our recommendations was the agency and the Congress really have to take a look at, beyond the statutory requirements, who are all these people getting protection, and are there other alternatives? You know, I had protection while I was at the IRS from our Criminal Investigation Division, and most agencies have protective services available within their agency. So, you know, we thought that Secret Service protection ought to be limited to those who actually need it and who have a real threat protection that can’t be met otherwise.

Tom Temin: And you never struck me as a guy who carries his own sig sauer in this jacket anyhow. But what were some of the other recommendations?

John Koskinen: Well there are a series of recommendations, some of them, you know, that apply in most organizations. Here, particularly when you have the uniform division protecting facilities — the White House, vice president’s residents, foreign missions — and you have agents who are traveling protecting people and the investigative division, you could create silos over time, and make it more difficult for an agent to move from one to another. So we have suggested they take a look at that and try to figure out particularly on hiring, whether they couldn’t coordinate some of that more easily, I mean, the hiring challenge for the service is more difficult than virtually all other federal agencies, because in addition to all of the background checks and securities, they do polygraph tests. Because you know, the best time to fire somebody is when you’re hiring them. You want to make sure you’re getting people you can trust and rely on. So it’s a longer hiring process than usual. And so you need to make sure it’s as efficient as possible. Also, with the silos, you want to make sure that people can move effectively and efficiently, if they want to, to a different part of the agency rather than having to leave. When I was at the IRS, one of the great things at work there was we went out of our way to ensure that if you were working with individual taxpayers and wanted to work with corporate or business taxpayers in another division, you could do that, because the tendency in a division is usually to say, well, if you haven’t been here for five years you’re not eligible for the next position. And you need to break down those barriers to the extent possible, because then you develop more options in a career path for people and you’re more likely to retain them. And retention is the best way to deal with staff problems as you go forward.

Tom Temin: And did you find that the technology support and the equipment support and some of the physical infrastructure needed was adequate at the Secret Service?

John Koskinen: Well, they’ve made great progress .They really are focused on technology. Everyone is. We had some specific recommendations as to how to ensure that it’s operating effectively. And particularly that the information is easily shared, again, across various offices and across various divisions. But again, the agency has focused on it, we couldn’t have had a more receptive group to our recommendations and our discussions along the way. So again, you have to remember they reached out to NAPA to have this study done. So they really are focused on trying to make the improvements necessary to ensure that kind of the work life balance — the quality of life for their employees — is as good as it can be.

Tom Temin: So in summary, a balance of management and process reforms, and they need some funding also.

John Koskinen: Yeah, that’s right. A lot of the things are, you know, one of the key things with employees is to listen to them and respond to, you know, what their concerns are, which is one of the great things about the employee viewpoint survey. You get real insights into whether people are having difficulty in one area or another, and what you can do as the management to respond to those concerns. But as the Secret Service is doing, you’ve got to actually pay attention to those results. And beyond that, just once a year getting a survey, you really have to find ways to encourage communication not only from the top down, but from the bottom up.

Tom Temin: John Koskinen is former IRS commissioner, among other things, and a National Academy of Public Administration panelist, looking at the Secret Service. Thanks so much for joining me.

John Koskinen: My pleasure. Always a pleasure talking with you, Tom.

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