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GAO: DHS Improves Employee Engagement But More Work Needed in the Wake of Instability

Since it began operations in 2003, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has recorded low scores for both employee morale and employee engagement. Employee engagement covers an employee’s sense of purpose and commitment, and studies show the greater the engagement, the better the performance. 

DHS and each of its major components face the same key drivers of employee engagement—as measured by the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (OPM FEVS)—as the rest of the federal government. DHS has made some progress improving engagement since 2015. However, as of 2019, the survey shows that DHS continues to rank lower in engagement than the government-wide average. Across the components, engagement varies with the U.S. Coast Guard coming out top in the 2019 survey for the best employee engagement, while the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office was last.

On the plus side, DHS has implemented department-wide employee engagement initiatives, including efforts to support DHS employees and their families. Additionally, DHS’s major operational components, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), among others, have developed annual action plans to improve employee engagement. 

The top five drivers for employee engagement at DHS and its components are constructive performance conversations, career development and training, work-life balance, an inclusive work environment, and communication from management. These drivers vary across the components, with TSA for example scoring well on constructive performance conversations but poorly on work-life balance and communication from management.

Indeed, the issue of work-life balance is of high concern to federal employees and those considering a career in government. As part of its efforts to support employees and their families and promote work-life balance, DHS developed the Employee and Family Readiness initiative in 2019. This initiative aims to promote family, financial, and personal wellness among the department’s employees. And in January 2020, DHS launched a website that offers resources, information regarding employee benefits, and programs to employees and their families. 

But a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review from December 2019 to January 2021 has found that DHS has not issued written guidance on action planning and components do not consistently include key elements in their plans, such as outcome-based performance measures. 

GAO found that as of November 2020, DHS’s Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO) has not provided components with written guidance on steps the components should take to develop and document their employee engagement action plans that they submit to OCHCO for review. Specifically, OCHCO has not directed the components in writing to include root causes, output-based performance measures, and outcome-based performance measures in their employee engagement action plans and has not required component leadership to approve the plans each year. 

OCHCO officials told GAO that they provide informal verbal guidance early in the annual action planning cycle but noted that this informal guidance has not been sufficient to ensure components consistently submit high-quality plans for OCHCO’s review. In addition, officials from one DHS component told GAO that it would be beneficial for OCHCO to provide consistent information on what to include in their action plans. OCHCO plans to develop written guidance and several template options for components to use for action planning, and they anticipate issuing this guidance in the first quarter of 2021.

The officials also stated that they hired additional officials to work in the employee engagement office from 2017 through 2019, and as of October 2020, they were in the process of hiring one additional person. They said this would allow OCHCO to have greater capacity to monitor action plans implementation and results going forward. 

As a result of its review, GAO made three recommendations to DHS OCHCO, which it sets out on its January 12 report:

  • DHS OCHCO should, through its planned written guidance to components on the employee engagement action planning process, establish the elements required in component engagement action plans, including leveraging information such as their key drivers to identify root causes, setting output-based implementation targets, and setting goals through outcome-based performance measures. 
  • DHS OCHCO should, through its planned written guidance to components on the employee engagement action planning process, require the approval of OCHCO and the heads of the components to finalize the employee engagement action plans. 
  • DHS OCHCO should monitor components’ implementation of the OPM action planning cycle to ensure the components review and assess the results of their actions to adjust, reprioritize, and identify new actions needed to improve employee engagement. 

DHS concurred with the recommendations and said it expects to complete these actions by March 31, 2021.

In recent years, DHS has been subject to shutdowns, instability in leadership due to high staff turnover, and uncertainty over “Acting” personnel appointments – all of which harm an agency’s planning and management, and employee engagement often falls by the wayside. While there will inevitably be initial upheaval due to senior staff changes at DHS, it is hoped the Biden administration will place greater importance on leadership reliability and stability for DHS and its components in the coming four years.

Read the full report at GAO

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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