Layers of Problems Drive Morale Issues at the Department of Homeland Security

The Oversight, Management and Accountability Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on January 14 to discuss morale at the the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The hearing was prompted by DHS once again ranking at the bottom of the Partnership for Public Service Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.

DHS Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey testified that DHS had significantly improved its numbers, citing the Secret Service and its systematic approach to dealing with morale issues, and the Transportation Security Adminstration’s steady improvement in morale. She described the Department’s approach, with focus on areas that employees have identified as critical drivers of morale.

Chris Currie, Director of the Government Accountability Office Homeland Security and Justice Team, testified that current and former DHS leadership clearly care about the issue of morale. He said DHS is making slow and steady progress, in part by following some of the recommendations GAO has made. He said that while DHS has a unique mission, other Departments and Agencies have unique missions and are able to maintain high levels of employee morale. He cited the US Coast Guard as a component of DHS that has far better morale and a long history of strong leadership. He suggested the Committee also talk with DHS leaders and that they put the same level of attention on mission support as on mission issues.

Max Stier, President of the Partnership for Public Service, testified that DHS has an excellent Chief Human Capital Officer in Ms. Bailey. He highlighted the improvements in some components, specifically:

  • The Office of Intelligence and Analysis saw a 13.1 point increase in 2019 and the Office of the Secretary jumped 6.9 points.
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which ranks 90 of 420 subcomponents, has an index score of 72.9 of 100 and has improved 14 points from its 2005 low.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard improved its score, rising 2.7 points. Of all 420 subcomponents across government included in the rankings, the Coast Guard remains the highest-ranked DHS subcomponent – 85th of 420 subcomponents.
  • The U.S. Secret Service is worth highlighting for its 8.9 point jump in 2019 for an index score of 52.9 of 100, a 61% improvement from its 2016 low score of 32.8.
  • The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has improved in five of the last six years, from 36.2 in 2013 to 51.5 in 2019.

Mr Stier also identified specific steps DHS could take to improve morale.

  1. Congress should hold hearings regularly to focus on DHS morale issues
  2. Hold leaders accountable – political appointees should have performance plans
  3. Provide continuity in senior management ranks (5 Under Secretaries for Management in 5 years). DHS has too many political appointees
  4. Provide budget stability. Shutdowns are burning down your own house
  5. Consolidate congressional jurisdiction over DHS
  6. Modernize the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey
  7. Continue to improve data and metrics
  8. Ensure that political leaders are focused on engagement and management
  9. Enhance career leadership development
  10. Create a culture of continual learning, reskilling and upskilling
  11. Work to fill vacancies

Three issues that the witnesses highlighted stand out. First is the improvement in morale in several components. The improvements they have made are real, and they can make a difference for those components. The problem with DHS-wide numbers is that they are driven by the largest components – TSA and CBP – which comprise 60 percent of the DHS workforce. Here are all of the component Best Places rankings:

DHS morale numbers are unlikely to rise beyond last place in the Best Places rankings if significant morale improvements are not made in TSA and CBP. Between 2018 and 2019, CBP’s overall rating dropped 2.1 points, while TSA dropped 1.1 points. Their number of employees is so large that it is very difficult for DHS to have an overall improvement. What that highlights is that looking at the Department as a whole is a futile exercise. Improvements in morale are not made at the Department level. They come at the component level and below. DHS is not unique in that respect. Highlighting the overall DHS number accomplishes nothing, and may interfere with the ability of the Department’s components to make the improvements they need.

Morale is driven by many factors, but the most consequential are the work itself and the quality of leaders. DHS and its components, like most other agencies, like to point to the employee responses on their dedication to the mission. The problem with that number is that virtually every agency has high numbers. When I say the work itself is a driver, I mean the nature of the work and the conditions under which it is performed. If we use TSA as an example, Transportation Security Officers are clearly dedicated to the mission. The problem is that they carry out that mission with low pay, high stress, and with an unrelenting workload. The quality of leadership is as big a driver as the work itself. Good leaders can relieve stress, ensure fairness in the workplace, make good hires, and deal with problem employees. DHS has made great strides in developing leaders, but far more must be done in leader selection and development to address the morale issues.

The final issue that resonated with me is the effect of political employees on morale and the ability of organizations to make sustained improvements. Mr. Stier highlighted the issue and suggested DHS should have far fewer political appointees. I have been both a career employee and a political appointee, and I believe he is correct. Turnover in political appointees generates a lack of continuity and makes solutions to longstanding problems difficult, if not impossible. The Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) at DHS is a great example. I was a political appointee in that position, and served as the 5th permanent DHS CHCO. There had also been multiple acting CHCOs. When I started the job, DHS had existed for six years. How could anyone expect to see improvement in human capital matters when the CHCOs left every few months? I recommended to Secretary Janet Napolitano that she convert the position to a career job after I left. Since then (eight years ago), DHS has had two CHCOs, and the second (Ms. Bailey) is still there. The issue of political appointees has been made even worse by the current administration’s apparent lack of interest in making permanent appointments to senior political jobs. Here is a look at some of the key senior DHS jobs that are filled by acting officials:

  • Secretary (acting), Chad F. Wolf Deputy Secretary (vacant), Ken Cuccinelli, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy SecretaryChief of Staff (acting), Chad Mizelle
    • Executive Secretary (acting), Juliana Blackwell
    • General Counsel (acting), Joseph B. Maher
  • Under Secretary, Management (vacant), Randolph D. “Tex” Alles, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Under Secretary for ManagementChief Financial Officer (acting), Stacy MarcottChief Information Officer (acting), Elizabeth A. Cappello
  • Under Secretary, Science and Technology (vacant), William (Bill) Bryan, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Under Secretary for Science and TechnologyDeputy Under Secretary (acting), Andre HentzDirector, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (vacant), Ken Cuccinelli, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
  • Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (acting), Mark A. Morgan
  • Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency (acting), Pete T. Gaynor
  • Director, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), (vacant), Matthew T. Albence, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Director, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • Assistant Secretary, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (acting), Gary Rasicot

Having Acting officials in 15 of the most critical Homeland Security positions makes any kind of sustained improvement far more challenging. The only positions on this list that really need to be political appointees are the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, but making that change would require Congress and the President to agree to change the law, and that is not likely to happen. At a minimum, the positions should have fixed terms, such as the 5-year term for the Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration. If all of the senior DHS political jobs, other than the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, had fixed 5-year terms and could be removed only for cause, we might see all of the components better positioned to make real change.



Reflections on 41 Years In and Around Government

I started working for the federal government in 1978, spent 31 years as a career employee, then “burrowed out” into a political appointment during the Obama Administration. After a total of 33 years as a Fed, I retired from the government and went to work in the private sector, for a company called ICF. Next week, I am going to retire.

With this transition looming, I thought this might be a good time to reflect on a few things I learned (sometimes the hard way) in all of those years in government and in the private sector.

  • Who your boss is matters. Like most people, I have had great bosses and bosses who were not so great. There have even been a few total jerks. The great ones, like VADM Keith Lippert (Director of the Defense Logistics Agency for 5 years), make going to work a joy. They help when needed and stay out of the way the rest of the time. They listen, allow you to bounce ideas off them, and point out when you might be about to drive off a cliff. When you have a great boss, you can get a lot done. On the other hand, there are the jerks. One example was a guy who would not speak to employees in the morning on most days. You could speak to him and he would just look up, then go back to whatever he was doing. Does that mean you should take a job solely because you will have a great boss? No. There is no guarantee that the great boss you go to work for will be there for long. S/he may retire, find another job, or fall out of favor and be reassigned. Enjoy the great bosses when they are around, but do not make career decisions assuming they will be there forever.
  • Who your employer is matters. I have worked for great organizations and not-so-great ones. The great ones have a few things in common. First is having a mission that matters. When people are doing work that makes a difference, they tend to be more engaged and the environment is better for everyone. The second thing they have in common is actually caring about the people. Every organization will tell you “people are our most important resource,” but for many those are just words. They say people are important, but defund people programs, or lack trust in their workers, or do countless other things that send the message that people are probably number 6, at best. Good employers can be found in a lot of places. I spent nine years as HR Director for the Defense Logistics Agency and enjoyed my work and the people I worked with. When I left government, I spent eight years at ICF, and enjoyed the work and the people I work with. But — I heard from other people in other places in the Department of Defense that they did not work in a good organization, or had lousy bosses. I have heard the same thing from people in other companies. It pays to do your due diligence before you accept a job.
  • Most jobs are partly your job description, and partly you. When we are hired for a job, we usually get some description of what the job is supposed to be. Written job descriptions are more of a government thing. Whether the description is written or verbal, remember that it is only a starting point. Changing circumstances are likely to change what your job is and what your employer expects of you. A big part of any job is what you want it to be. What projects do you take on? Where do you decide to pitch in even thought it is not what you were hired to do? What ideas do you take to your bosses? And how do you do the work? The people I have found are least satisfied with their jobs are people who either do not take the initiative to expand their jobs or those whose bosses will not let them do it. Either way, being confined to a narrow set of responsibilities is often a ticket to frustration and unhappiness. I have been lucky that most of the people I have worked for have been willing to let me work on things I enjoyed doing. One boss told me years ago “You do not seem to be limited by your job description.” She meant it as a compliment, which was the way I took it.
  • The good people are not just in government. Or just in the private sector. It really makes me ill to hear comments from people in government who think most people in the private sector are greedy crooks. And it is just as frustrating when I hear people in the private sector say that government workers are lazy, or incompetent, or just cannot get real jobs in the private sector. There are great people in government who do amazing work every day. They care about what they do, honor their oath of office, and would be assets in any organization. There are also great people in the private sector. They care about what they do and are not just in it for a fast buck. One thing that has driven that home for me is my work with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). NAPA is a not-for-profit, congressionally chartered “good government” organization. NAPA’s Fellows are elected after distinguished careers in the field of public administration. Fellows come from state, local and federal government, academia, other not-for-profit organizations, and from the private sector. All of them have learned that solutions to big problems (and Grand Challenges) are possible only when we apply the best thinking from all of those sectors.
  • And that leads to the most important lesson of all — You take yourself with you everywhere you go. I wish I could take credit for that expression, but it came from the mother of a dear friend. What it means is the one common denominator everywhere you go is you. If you find that people are hard to get along with everywhere you go, the odds are that you are the one who is hard to get along with. If every boss is a jerk, maybe you are the jerk. But if your bosses and peers think you are doing a great job, and you get lots of opportunities to do interesting and challenging projects, it is probably because you are doing things that instill confidence that you really are able to do a great job, and then you deliver results. No one hits a home run every time, but your own behavior goes a long way toward creating your work environment.

My federal career and the eight years at ICF have been personally and professionally rewarding. I started as a GS-5 from a small town in Southern West Virginia and ended my federal career as Chief Human Capital Officer for a Department with more than 200K employees. I worked with some of the most dedicated, capable, and decent people anyone could ask for.

Retiring does not mean I am going away. I will continue writing this blog, because I still have plenty of things to say. The work I do with the National Academy of Public Administration and the Partnership for Public Service will continue, and I will probably do some limited consulting after I take a break for a few months. I appreciate the readers who have supported ChiefHRO from the beginning, and who tell me that they read the blog, pass it around to their colleagues ands friends, and offer ideas for columns I should write. Keep those ideas coming, and I will keep writing and speaking out on issues that are important to the public service and public administration.