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DHS Agencies Make Gains in Employee Engagement

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson has made improving DHS employee engagement a priority, but the department overall still ranked last among large federal agencies in the 2016 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey. DHS as a whole improved its 2015 score by 2.7 points, its first increase since 2010.

The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings are produced by the Partnership for Public Service—a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to improving the effectiveness of government. As part of its strategy for change, it works with numerous agencies, many of which are represented in its Best Places to Work profiles and rankings on everything from improving employee engagement to leadership development.

In 2016, the new survey found “several immigration agencies registered increases in their Best Places to Work scores, reflecting improvements in how the employees of these organizations view their jobs and workplaces.”

In particular, the survey reported, “US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which oversees lawful immigration to the United States, has a 2016 Best Places to Work employee engagement score of 70.7 out of 100, representing a 4.5-point increase from 2015, and a 7-point jump since 2014. USCIS also improved in nine of 10 workplace categories, with the one decrease of 1.5 points coming on the issue of pay, while the views of employees regarding their leadership jumped 4.3 points.”

At Customs and Border Protection (CBP), it had a 2016 Best Places to Work score of 46.8, a 6.3-point improvement after five consecutive years of decline.

“Employees gave higher marks to the agency in all 10 workplace categories than in 2015, including 4.4-point increases for leadership, and for training and development opportunities,” the survey said.

USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez said his agency has placed an emphasis on leadership training with a program called 12×12, where supervisors are required to obtain 12 hours of training and to teach another 12 hours for employees. Rodriguez said this program has helped “create a culture of learning” among supervisors that permeates throughout the agency.

“USCIS also has demonstrated an interest in empowering employees going forward. In May, the agency started actively soliciting employee feedback by using pulse polls, an internal polling system that collects feedback about employee concerns and perspectives,” the survey said, noting, “They also have employed a web-based portal called USCIS Innovation that allows for online peer interaction and voting regarding workplace issues that employees would like to resolve.”

Rodriguez said responses from these two initiatives have been used to improve how employees do their jobs, adding that responding to the concerns raised has been a critical factor in improving employee engagement.

CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said he has implemented leadership development programs for GS-15 employees and other supervisors, and made training a prerequisite for promotion. Additionally, he said a mentoring program has been instituted for employees.

Town hall meetings in field offices also have been used as an employee engagement improvement mechanism by CBP and USCIS, helping leadership build credibility with employees, according to CBP’s Kerlikowske and USCIS’s Rodriguez.

At one CBP town hall, Kerlikowske said an employee suggested there was a need for more counseling services. He said the agency followed up by expanding these services, resulting in an increase in the number of visits by employees seeking help.

“This showed people that they are being heard and that their suggestions are taken seriously and are actionable,” Kerlikowske said.

He also emphasized the importance of recognizing employees for their good work, noting that CBP leaders make eight to 10 calls a week to congratulate employees for outstanding accomplishments. In one instance, he said, a group of employees detected faulty batteries used in the popular hover board toys that could catch fire, and is confident that “lives were saved as a result of the good work of CBP employees.”

“While we are disappointed with the Department of Homeland Security’s overall 2016 ranking in the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, I am pleased that our employee engagement score increased 2.7-points. This is in contrast to an overall 1.3-point increase government-wide, and it is the second largest single-year increase of any large agency,” responded DHS Secretary Johnson. “This is also the first increase in the department’s survey score since 2010.”

“Like this year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey increase,” he said, “this increase is the result of the hard work and aggressive employee engagement campaign we have launched over the last several years. I hope this upward trend continues, and I hope the next secretary and the incoming administration continue to make it a priority.”

But, “Most important,” Johnson said, “I thank and recognize the men and women of this Department, who take on the tremendous task of safeguarding our country each and every day. It is their dedication, courage and service that have made our communities stronger and our nation safer.”

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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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