The Homeland Security Department should focus on retaining senior executives, who are leaving DHS at a fast clip, union and nonprofit leaders told a congressional committee on Thursday.
Since its creation in October 2003 to September 2007, 72 percent of its career executives have left DHS, according to data from Homeland Security's fiscal 2009-13 strategic plan -- a rate significantly higher than other Cabinet-level departments, testified Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Investigations, and Oversight.
Some of those executives were eligible to retire, but according to Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, problems with the performance-based pay system at DHS and a dearth of opportunities for advancement also were driving talented executives to jobs elsewhere in government. Under the department's pay-for-performance system, some civilian employees at high pay grade levels can earn more money in their current positions than in SES jobs.
"Clearly over time, the stature of the SES has been diminished," Bonosaro said. "One thing that keeps executives on the job is being excited and interested and committed to what's being done. To the degree that they were locked out of those opportunities, that gives them an incentive to retire." Bonosaro said senior executives have been blocked from some top-level jobs, including the chief human capital officer position, which is reserved for a political appointee.
Witnesses told lawmakers that the problems with DHS' personnel policies range from the highest to the lowest grade levels.
"In this town, we have a lot of attention paid to wiring diagrams, and not enough to people issues," Stier said. The department has "a heck of a lot of distance to travel...only 34 percent of DHS employees say their leaders generate high levels of commitment and motivation from them. That is a stunning number and one that no one would be proud of."
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, and Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, agreed that challenges also exist at the lower end of the pay scale. Kelley said the Performance Accountability and Standards System in place at the Transportation Security Administration, where both AFGE and NTEU are organizing local union chapters, "is not fair, is not credible and is not transparent."
Gage said employees' faith in the pay system was undermined by the fact that they often did not understand their ratings and had less recourse to contest pay and disciplinary decisions than their counterparts at other DHS component agencies such as Customs and Border Protection and Immigration Customs Enforcement.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr., D-N.J., said he was frustrated by the argument that TSA employees should not receive collective bargaining rights because they might go on strike and shut down airports, even though other DHS employees have bargaining rights.
"Has providing collective bargaining rights diminished the operational effectiveness of those in Customs and Border Protection?" he asked. "This is something we've had to swallow for a number of years. We should address it as quickly as possible, Mr. Chairman, because it does not make sense...It seems pretty stupid to me."
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., asked witnesses at the hearing if the dispersion of DHS components among as many as 70 buildings in the Washington area made it more difficult for the department to coalesce. But witnesses said physical distance was less of a problem than certain policies and a lack of communication among employees and leaders in separate agencies.
"You need to find ways to support communication across the network of people who are out there," Stier said.