New report finds old problem: DHS has morale issues

November 19, 2012

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report confirms what has become a truism within the Department of Homeland Security: it has morale problems.

Eye Opener

This latest study says “since it began operations in 2003, DHS employees have reported having low job satisfaction. That low rating, the report continues, is one of “the challenges the department faces implementing its missions.”

Low morale is one reason GAO “has designated the implementation and transformation of DHS as a high risk area, including its management of human capital, because it represents an enormous and complex undertaking that will require time to achieve in an effective and efficient manner.”

DHS has used focus groups, employee surveys and exit interviews to help its morale improvement efforts, but the problem persists.

Although DHS as a whole has lower morale on average than other federal agencies, some components of the department rate above average. And the department’s low morale is spread across many employee groups, including management/non-management, pay grade and tenure, according to the report, which analyzed Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data.

Levels of job satisfaction and job engagement vary widely among DHS agencies. On job satisfaction, the Transportation Security Administration is 14.7 percentage points below the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and 11.6 percentage points below the non-DHS average.

There also are wide variations within TSA. The employee engagement index was 64.8 for TSA’s federal security director staff and 50.9 for screeners.

“A TSA screener union representative described TSA’s performance assessment system as a key driver of morale problems among passenger screeners,” the report said. The American Federation of Government Employees represents screeners.

GAO said DHS has tried to determine the root causes for low employee morale, but needs to strengthen its action plan to deal with the problem. “DHS does not have specific metrics within the action plans that are consistently clear and measurable,” GAO said.

In comments included with the report, DHS agreed with GAO’s recommendations to improve the departments analysis of the causes of the morale problems and to establish better action plan metrics.

“DHS is committed to improving employee engagement and morale,” said the department’s letter to GAO.

In March, Catherine Emerson, the personnel chief at DHS, told a congressional hearing the department has a three-pronged strategy to improve employee morale. It includes instructing agency heads to prioritize employee engagement, working to improve communication, training, diversity, and employee recognition; and strengthening leadership skills and capacity.

“We recognize the difficulties that exist due to the many organizational cultures that were brought together when the Department was created nine years ago, “ she said, “but these difficulties are not insurmountable and we will continue to move forward …”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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