Vacancies, Placeholders, Morale Take Center Stage at DHS

Over the past half decade, there’s been persistent criticism regarding periods when there were delays in filling the many “acting” and vacant positions of top leaders at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the problems that it’s caused.

During these periods, DHS had to be run by “acting” placeholders, which isn’t to say these career DHS officials are not qualified – the skills and capabilities of DHS’s placeholder leadership isn’t in question. The question is, how can “acting” leaders embark on intrepid initiatives or express farsighted missions. Well, they can’t, because they – and everyone else at DHS – don’t know how long they will be around. Placeholders typically will not pilot high-minded policy ships or engage in necessarily risky decisions.

Conversely, the longer they are around, the longer such initiatives and missions are never put initiated.

“It is important [to get these positions filled] in as much as the new administration wants to drive change. Otherwise, things like a congressional continuing resolution and [acting DHS officials] ensuring that business continues … based on the current law and regulation,” said Nick Nayak, former DHS chief procurement officer.

Today, President Trump is faced with a similar situation, even though he’s only two months into his presidency. Nevertheless, given his emphasis on protecting the homeland, the current acting DHS officials and vacancies of top leadership posts need to be filled as quickly as possible.

DHS currently has 25 leadership positions with “acting” heads. Among them are executive secretary, general counsel, chief financial officer, chief information officer, director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Commissioner, Customs and Border Protection, Under Secretary, Science and Technology, Under Secretary, Office of Intelligence and Analysis, among many others.

Among the 13 “vacant” positions are undersecretary of National Protection & Programs Directorate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Assistant Secretary, Cyber Policy, Assistant Secretary, Infrastructure Protection and Assistant Secretary, Office of Policy.

How does this affect the workforce? The Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated in its 2017 high-risk update that “DHS does not have modernized financial management systems, which affects its ability to have ready access to reliable information for informed decision making,” and still “has considerable work ahead to improve employee morale.”

Addressing these and other outcomes are significant undertakings that will likely require multiyear efforts, GAO said, concluded that in coming years DHS needs to continue implementing its plan for addressing the high-risk area[s] to ensure it has the people and resources necessary to resolve risk, and fully address the remaining” high risk issues.

DHS also “needs to make additional progress in strengthening capacity by identifying and allocating resources in certain areas, such as staffing for acquisition and information technology positions,” GAO found.

According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) FedScope database of federal employees, between Fiscal Years 2010 and 2013, there was a 31 percent escalation in the number of yearly exoduses of permanent employees from DHS – almost half of the percentage of retreats for the entire government.

However, according to OPM’s latest 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey [FEVS], which measures conditions conducive to the engagement potential of an agency’s work environment: “Leading the increase for very large agencies in overall [employee] engagement and two of the three sub factors for 2016 is the Department of Homeland Security,” which FEVS found “has the largest increase in new IQ score, while displaying increases in each of the five “habits of inclusion.”

FEVS said DHS employee engagement is up 3 percent; leaders leading is up 2 percent; supervisory engagement is up 2 percent; intrinsic work experience is up 3 percent; and new IQ empowerment was found to be up 2 percent.

However, until vacancies and acting leaders are replaced – and quickly – vital DHS initiatives and programs, placeholders could be hard pressed to act on potentially urgent policy and other decisions.

“My concern is DHS may become hamstrung by its own long tail and politicization,” said an industry cybersecurity executive who was on a short list for a senior DHS cyber post. “I see a very large organization spread thin in too many areas, and without a strong rudder” right now, DHS faces being “deficient in the articulation of a meaningful strategy.” 

Read the complete report in the April/May 2017 issue of Homeland Security Today Magazine here.

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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