DHS Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey testifies before the House Homeland Oversight, Management, & Accountability Subcommittee on Jan. 14, 2020. (House video)

Low DHS Morale: Is it Job Stress, Acting Leaders, or Lack of a ‘Culture of Recognition’?

Low morale at the Department of Homeland Security can stem from a lack of management continuity and budget security as well as a lack of action being taken on employee feedback, the House Homeland Security Oversight, Management, and Accountability Subcommittee heard today.

Chairwoman Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.) stressed that “concerns about morale at DHS transcend party,” and though “morale may be low in part because DHS employees are engaged in tough jobs on the front line… this is clearly not the whole picture.”

Components such as the Office of Intelligence & Analysis, the Management Directorate, and the Office of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction receive poor ratings from staff, she noted, while the Coast Guard and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “have both consistently received high scores from employees and are currently ranked in the top 25 percent of all federal offices.” CISA, the chairwoman added, has also “seen steady and consistent improvement in employee morale since 2013.”

“Given the critical mission of the department, I fear the consequences should the department not take urgent and drastic action to improve employee morale,” Torres Small said. “I also worry about how this environment affects the well-being of the more than 200,000 hard-working DHS employees – from the Border Patrol agents and CBP officers working throughout my district to the thousands more keeping America safe.”

“Almost 17 years after its creation we need to see some real progress in this area,” concurred Ranking Member Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), stressing it’s “imperative to our security” that employees feel satisfied and secure in their jobs.

“This is a problem that starts at the top,” he said.

The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ratings released last month by the Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group showed that DHS was the lowest rated out of the 17 large agencies.

DHS Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey told lawmakers that in addition to DHS employees shouldering “extremely difficult work under some of the most challenging circumstances and conditions,” they also have family concerns and financial worries exacerbated by fears of another government shutdown. She credited the DHS Employee Engagement Steering Committee, which “serves as a forum for sharing ideas and best practices and helps ensure component accountability,” for garnering better feedback on the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. DHS also launched its Employee and Family Readiness initiative last year.

“DHS data from the FEVS shows that over the last four years, when DHS employees were asked the important question, ‘I believe the results of this survey will be used to make my agency a better place to work,’ we have made consistent progress informing employees that their input is heard,” Bailey testified. “In fact, this year 40 percent of our employees responded positively to this question, which is only one percentage point below the government average – and eight percentage points above our score in 2015.”

Chris Currie, director of the Homeland Security and Justice Team at the Government Accountability Office, said lawmakers need to bring in component heads as they conduct oversight on DHS morale because “nobody cares more about this than the leadership of the department.”

“They are making slow and steady progress but obviously there is a lot more that needs to be done,” Currie said.

That centers on identifying the root causes of morale issues, he said, noting that while DHS faces unique mission and job stresses “a lot of agencies face unique missions and challenges and don’t face the morale that DHS has now.” Even within behemoth DHS, the components are so varied that “what plagues TSA is going to be different from what the Coast Guard faces.”

DHS needs to focus on core management issues, Currie said, with leadership accountability and proving to employees that their feedback is being put into action.

Partnership for Public Service President and CEO Max Stier said DHS needs to concentrate on building a “culture of recognition” where good is lauded along with the bad being called out. “You have components that are exceptional and ones that are struggling more,” he said.

DHS needs to ensure it’s bringing the right talent on board; for example, “CBP agent turnover has a huge impact on the mission.” The agency would also see a “phenomenal impact” if it had leadership and budget stability, he said.

“Shutdowns are the worst craziness — burning down your own house — but we also don’t need CRs,” Stier said of stopgap funding measures, adding the agency needs to have more confirmed presidential appointees instead of acting leaders.

“Phenomenal people can be in those jobs, but they’re the substitute teacher if they’re in an acting capacity,” he said, noting that long-term planning and partnerships can suffer.

Stier told lawmakers that “one of the best things” that could happen to DHS would be for Deputy Under Secretary for Management Randolph “Tex” Alles — the acting under secretary put in the role by former Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan — to be nominated, confirmed and set in his role for “a lengthy period of time — you would see huge improvement.”

Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) asked Bailey how she ranks her own job satisfaction. Bailey replied that she would “absolutely” recommend DHS as a good place to work and was “very satisfied” with her job. “I think my scores are reflective of many employees in DHS,” she added. “…I absolutely have fantastic leadership that supports me every step of the way.”

Barragán asked if morale was lowered by employees having to carry out policies with which they don’t agree. “These employees are mothers and fathers; you don’t think that had an impact?” the congresswoman said of child separations.

“It is our responsibility to carry out the policies of the administration,” Bailey said, adding that “there are areas in which we can work with our employees to better understand the policies.”

Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) asked if morale was affected by “demonizing rhetoric” about CBP and ICE.

“Yes, and I’ve seen the effects of it,” Bailey responded.

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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