Federal Diary: Napolitano leaves, but DHS problems remain

Joe Davidson
Columnist July 15, 2013

When Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced her resignation Friday, President Obama praised her management, saying: “The American people are safer and more secure thanks to Janet’s leadership in protecting our homeland against terrorist attacks.”

Top federal employee leaders also were laudatory.

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

“Secretary Napolitano was open, accessible and always willing to speak to the union, and always willing to speak out in defense of the DHS workforce, recognizing their bravery, sacrifice and dedication to the department’s mission,” said
J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

But once you get below the presidential level, reviews of her tenure and the department she leads are decidedly mixed.

As she leaves office, the DHS remains mired at the bottom of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government listings — where it was before she took office in 2009. In last year’s ranking, the DHS was last among 19 agencies in its category. Never has it had a decent showing since its first ranking in 2005.


Once you get below the presidential level, reviews of Janet Napolitano’s tenure and the department she leads are decidedly mixed. (Olivier Douliery/EPA)

“It is concerning that even as the department matures with time, employee satisfaction is not showing equal signs of progress,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Although the agency’s Best Places scores are lower now than when she took office, in fairness to Napolitano it probably would have taken a miracle worker to drag the DHS from the depths of bad morale in just a few years. Formed in 2002, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it is an unwieldy concoction of 22 agencies striving to be the “unified, integrated Cabinet agency” its Web site advertises.

“For the very large agencies, such as DHS, I think it’s very difficult for the agency head to have much personal influence on the overall rankings as opposed to some of the smaller agencies where employees often see more of a connection to the agency head and where the influence of that head can be more dramatic (for better or worse),” said John M. Palguta, a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, which publishes the Best Places list, in an e-mail. (The Washington Post has a content-sharing relationship with the Partnership).

There’s no doubt that the DHS’s droopy employee morale concerns Napolitano.

“I believe the secretary is aware of the department’s shortcoming as far as employee satisfaction,” said Kimberly Kraynak-Lambert, a behavior detection officer with the department’s Transportation Security Administration in Pittsburgh. Speaking in her role as an AFGE officer, Kraynak-Lambert added: “I also think that she established many different initiatives to reach and listen to all employees.”

Under Napolitano, the DHS has tried to boost morale by working “to improve employee engagement through enhanced communication and training, employee recognition and strengthening the skills of employees at every level,” said Peter Boogaard, a DHS spokesman. “Leadership is held accountable through a new Employee Engagement Executive Steering Committee . . . that meets regularly to share ideas among offices and identify ways to continue to improve the work environment.”

Major workplace-related issues during Napolitano’s watch include the unionization of TSA workers, collective-bargaining rights for them and employee misconduct charges. House Republicans have placed the department — and the TSA in particular — in the cross hairs with hearings that have titles such as: “Breach of Trust: Addressing Misconduct Among TSA Screeners,” “TSA’s Efforts to Fix Its Poor Customer Service Reputation” and “Department of Homeland Security: An Examination of Ethical Standards.”

Employee criticism of Napolitano is most fierce from those sections of the sprawling department that deal with border, customs and immigration issues.

“I don’t know how she was able to do it, but the Border Patrol had the worst morale I have ever seen under her tenure,” said George E. McCubbin, past president of the AFGE’s National Border Patrol Council. Immigration productivity increases under Napolitano flow from “employees working through lunch and past their tours of duty to complete the work assigned,” said Kenneth Palinkas, president of the AFGE’s National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council.

Yet, Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents Customs and Border Protection workers, said Napolitano “understands well that the lack of sufficient CBP personnel at the nation’s 311 land, air and sea ports of entry serves as a drag on the U.S. economy.”

Kelley noted the secretary’s 2009 decision to increase the pay-grade level of some CBP employees and said the union “remains appreciative of Secretary Napolitano’s support on this vital issue and others.”

Democrats also appreciate her leadership, but along with Republicans they have grown impatient with the pace of improvement in the department that — like the preteen it is — continues to mature.

“There is still work to be done,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. Department officials have long told the panel that “ ‘We’re getting there,’” but proof of that happening, he added, “is just not there.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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