At its meeting on May 21, 2015, the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) issued a report by its DHS Employee Task Force, established in October 2014 following the Department’s poor rankings in the latest federal employee survey results, and formerly known as the “DHS Employee Morale Task Force” but renamed a few weeks prior to the issuance of the report. The report has been publicly released but is not yet available on the DHS website; I have posted a copy at this link.
The report includes a brief assessment of the relevant issues that affect DHS workforce morale, makes four primary recommendations, and includes twenty-seven specific action items that derive from these recommendations. The four primary recommendations are as follows:
1. Greatly increase the emphasis on leadership qualities when filling managerial positions and when assessing the performance of incumbents.
2. Significantly improve management training, particularly leadership training.
3. Adopt proven industrial standards for personnel development.
4. Significantly strengthen communications (upward, downward and outward), making greater use of modern communication technology.
Overall, the report provides a solid initial assessment of the challenges facing DHS leadership as it attempts to address morale issues, and suggests a number of common-sense management initiatives. But its analysis should be viewed as only a starting point. This is an issue that is difficult to generalize across the Department; the issues that affect the morale and satisfaction of the frontline officer at TSA or CBP are very different than the issues that affect an intelligence analyst or policy advisor at one of the headquarters offices. Moreover, it is necessary as part of such an assessment to make a distinction between issues that are within the span of control of the leadership of the Department (such as day-to-day operational policies and norms) and those that are outside of their control (such as civil service laws, or Congressional constraints on the Department’s organizational structure).
Two issues in particular are deserving of further analysis. The first is the set of procedures (formal and informal) related to decision-making and action-taking within DHS, and the incentive structure that underlies these procedures. My observation over a number of years and spanning multiple DHS leadership teams is that it is far too difficult for motivated and forward-looking individuals to take initiative and drive change within the Department. Instead, it is much easier for offices to stifle new initiatives that they do not like, a reality exacerbated by the fragmented Congressional oversight of the Department and by the existence of numerous internal oversight and compliance offices within DHS. This observation is supported by the results of Question #32 on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: “Creativity and innovation are rewarded.” DHS employees express on average a much more negative response to this question than employees of other federal agencies. I would contend that the frustration and hopelessness captured in these responses is a major factor in low morale at DHS.
The second issue deserving of additional attention is reflected in the results to Question #22 of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: “Promotions in my work unit are based on merit.” 55.6% of DHS employees disagreed with this statement in the 2014 survey – the most negative result of any agency surveyed by far, and much higher than the government-wide average of 39.3%. The apparent lack of meritocracy reflected in this result is a long-standing issue at DHS (as far back as the 2006 employee survey, DHS also had the most negative result) and needs to be rigorously assessed at the component level to determine the root causes of this, which likely includes issues related to organizational culture, personnel policies, and the lack of clear standards for promotions. Notably, the HSAC task force calls for a follow-on review of these issues, including an assessment of the Department’s promotion and compensation systems.
As noted earlier, the full HSAC report can be viewed at this link.