How one DHS office is trying to bounce back amid low morale numbers

The Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office at DHS has one of the worst employee engagement and satisfaction scores in all of government.

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a DHS special report for Federal News Network. Check back for more interviews and content about DHS’ workforce engagement and satisfaction efforts throughout the week.

Employees at the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office have had a turbulent few years.

Fresh off a major reorganization and already facing longstanding morale issues, the CWMD office saw its authority in law expire last December. About two-dozen employees then departed the DHS office over a six-month period, representing about 10% of CWMD’s federal workforce.

But Mary Ellen Callahan, assistant secretary of DHS for the CWMD office, says she’s optimistic about the organization’s future. Callahan took over as director last August after serving as chief of staff to former DHS Deputy Secretary John Tien.

“This office really does extraordinary work every day,” Callahan said in an interview. “And I want [employees] to feel connected to the department and understand that their mission really matters.”

The office in recent months has hired about 30 new staff, including 10 at DHS’s job expo last month. Callahan said she hopes CWMD will be “close to 100%” staffing by the end of 2024.

Most importantly, the potential termination of the office has not come to fruition. While lawmakers didn’t agree to reauthorize it, Congress has continued to fund the DHS office through the annual appropriations process.

Compared to last fall, the threat of termination is now “muted,” Callahan said.

“We have pretty candid conversations about the authorization tethered to appropriations,” she said. “I feel pretty confident that we’re going to be in that position for at least the rest of this calendar year. And what we want to do is get well set up in the beginning of the next Congress so that we can have a strong authorization and that we can further establish ourselves. But right now, people do feel on relatively solid footing. And I’m just trying to communicate and be as transparent as possible.”

Still, given the uncertainty around reauthorization last year, it may be no surprise that the CWMD office continues to rank at the bottom of the Partnership for Public Service’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” list for 2023. The scores are based on results from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), which is administered in the first half of the year.

CWMD saw a 7-point improvement in its overall engagement and satisfaction score in 2023. But in a year when those scores rose across the federal government, the DHS office still ranks 457 out of 459 agency subcomponents in the Partnership’s rankings.

“The FEVS scores and the Best Places to Work, they’re important metrics, but they’re not the only metrics,” Callahan said. “And we are really working on finding ways to engage with the workforce to talk about efficiency, effectiveness, professional development and job satisfaction.”

Focus on team building

The CWMD office is responsible for working with state and local governments as well as international organizations to guard against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats to the United States.

Recently, it’s also taken on a big role at DHS in analyzing and preparing for threats stemming from artificial intelligence. In June, CWMD published a report on the intersection of AI and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.

Internally, Callahan said the theme in 2024 for CWMD is “prepare, connect, transform.”

“I’m very optimistic about where the office is going to go and where we’re taking it,” she said. “I’ve been excited that people have been tying their own work to the ‘prepare, connect,’ and then how do we transform this and make this even more of a robust entity.”

To help boost morale and engagement, Callahan said she holds town halls every two weeks to discuss key issues for the workforce. She also hosts office hours every week, along with sending out a weekly leadership email update.

After getting feedback that employees felt disconnected from other parts of the organization, CWMD will start allowing staff involved in its mentorship program to go on two-week “mini details” to other directorates.

“The chemists don’t necessarily know what the physicists work on, and vice versa,” Callahan said. The program will allow mentees “to go and experience a different director and leadership to better understand what CWMD does, and to also experience different leadership styles as well.”

On July 16, several CWMD directorates will host a “Trinity Day” — named after the first nuclear weapon test in 1945 — for staff to learn about the history of the Trinity test and also participate in team-building exercises.

“We are also going to have a competition to see who can find radiological materials fastest, because we’re all competitive at the end of the day, mimicking what our mobile detection deployment unit does every time they deploy,” Callahan said.

The day will also feature trivia, as well as a promotion ceremony for one of the 12 military service members assigned to the CWMD office.

With many staff working remotely, Callahan said the goal is to be “intentional about in-person time.”

Supervisors and efficiencies

FEVS results can be a lagging indicator. That’s especially true for an organization like CWMD, which has seen leadership changes and a Congressional authorization skirmish in the year since the 2023 surveys were completed.

But the office’s 2023 FEVS results, which improved in several key areas, also notably showed a downturn in how CWMD employees felt about their supervisors.

Callahan said that was a “unique circumstance” that has since been addressed, indicating that there were problematic supervisors at the DHS office who have since left the organization.

“Some of the criticisms associated with that supervisory number are no longer an issue in the office,” she said.

CWMD has also brought in several new second line supervisors and is boosting training for individuals in leadership positions.

“We’re looking to develop leadership skills and promotional opportunities across the board,” Callahan said. “And we’re also working on getting training to first line and second line supervisors, as well. That’s a standard approach in an office, but we are honing in on those types of leadership skills.”

Additionally, Callahan said she is working on several “modest changes” to CWMD’s structure that will be revealed in the coming months.

“I am not a big fan of coming in, and wholesale changing structures and offices,” she said. “I’ve got some suggestions on making it a little more efficient.”

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