Workplace issues challenge new DHS team

March 06, 2009

Low employee morale. High executive turnover. Demoralizing personnel policies and ineffective pay systems.
By most measures, the Homeland Security Department’s 223,000 employees are not a happy bunch. They rank their workplace as one of the worst in government. They fault their leaders for failing to encourage top performance and provide resources.
Leaders, meanwhile, are heading out the door. Since the department was created in 2003, nearly three-fourths of its career executives have left — the highest rate of any Cabinet agency and more than 30 percentage points higher than the government average.
Tackling these problems won’t be easy, according to employee representatives and workforce advocates. Some of the solutions they suggest, such as reforming the hiring system and revamping how senior executives are paid and rewarded, extend beyond the department and will require governmentwide attention.
Still other recommendations can be carried out by the new team being assembled by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Most experts agree that developing a positive work culture and signaling that employees are valued can help heal some of the bad feelings and distrust that built up under the previous administration.
“The culture of DHS must change from anti-employee to pro-employee,” said John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, during a hearing Thursday before the House Homeland Security subcommittee on management, investigations and oversight.
Many of the proposed solutions hinge on reversing policies and laws enacted under the Bush administration. They include extending union rights and Title 5 workforce protections to Transportation Security Administration screeners, restoring customs inspectors and agriculture specialists as separate functions, and making both the Border Patrol and Federal Protective Service separate agencies within the department.
Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service, said the hiring process used by Homeland Security and other departments needs to be revamped so the department can better recruit and retain employees. Vacancies exist not only in senior leadership positions but also in many front-line positions.
It’s unclear why so many executives have left. The department doesn’t conduct exit interviews to determine whether employees retired, moved to other departments or left for other reasons.
Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said she suspects some executives were fed up with working in a department where their clout and ability to effect change has been greatly diminished. Homeland Security has more than 300 political appointees who perform jobs that often could be handled by career executives, such as chief management officers.
“To the degree that they were locked out of those opportunities, that certainly gave them the motivation to retire,” Bonosaro said.
Still others likely were frustrated by the performance-based pay system that covers senior executives governmentwide. Pay raises and bonuses aren’t distributed uniformly across agencies, causing many executives to feel that budget constraints and personal whims play a more important role than their performance in determining pay.
Despite the challenges, employee representatives are optimistic that the tide is turning under the Obama administration.
What’s more, employees seem more positive about the direction of the department, judging by the results of last year’s human capital survey. Employees gave more positive responses than in earlier surveys to all but two of the 74 questions, an encouraging sign that they’re more satisfied in their jobs.
But since the department is coming from near bottom on the results, more progress is needed.
“As much as they’ve moved, the numbers frankly are still not good enough,” Stier said.

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