Homeland Security ranks lowest amid declining job satisfaction among feds

December 18, 2013

Federal employees who deal with homeland security matters remain some of the government’s least-satisfied, as overall workforce morale hit its lowest point in a decade, according to a report that began ranking agencies on such issues in 2003.

Government-wide job satisfaction continued its downward slide for the third straight year, dropping to 57.8 percent, a decline of 7.2 points from its high of 65 percent in 2010. Last year, job satisfaction was at 60.8 percent.

The Department of Homeland Security, a perennial bottom-dweller in the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings, marked its third consecutive year of decline and its second straight year of being last among the 19 largest agencies.

Its 46.8 percent job-satisfaction rating put DHS nearly 30 points behind the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which, like last year, ranked as the No. 1 place to work.

The Best Places list gauges employee satisfaction based on the Office of Personnel Management’s annual “Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey” of the government’s more than 2 million workers. The listings have become a source of competition and concern, as well as a cause for bragging rights among agencies, which are categorized by size.

Which government agency is best to work for?

Government Accountability Office official David Maurer joked with lawmakers at a hearing last week that his organization was “looking to beat out” the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. after finishing second behind that agency among mid-size organizations in 2012. The GAO dropped to third this year while the FDIC maintained its top spot.

But the continued overall downward trend left little to joke about among a beleaguered workforce.

“We’ve consistently been at the bottom of these surveys, and nothing has changed,” said Stacy Bodtman, a screener with DHS’s Transportation Security Administration in New Jersey and a regional vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees.

Still, NASA was among the nearly 25 percent of agencies that improved or held their ground during a year when federal employees were early casualties in partisan fiscal battles that produced across-the-board budget cuts and a 16-day government shutdown. Workers faced forced furloughs and mountains of uncertainty.

Against that backdrop, satisfaction and commitment scores fell in 75.4 percent of agencies, with data showing drops for the second year in a row in all 10 categories measuring workplace satisfaction. The annual survey covers a long list of job-satisfaction issues, from strategic management and compensation to work-life balance and skills matching.

The categories that had the biggest decreases included pay, where satisfaction declined 4.7 points from last year, and 12.7 points since 2010. The second-largest drop was in opportunities for training and development, which dipped 3.2 points.

Once again, according to the rankings, leadership — or lack of it — made the difference when it came to success or failure. In 2013, senior leadership overall received a failing score from employees, with only 45.4 percent government-wide satisfaction.

Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit good-government group that, with the De­loitte professional services firm, compiles the rankings each year, attributed the declines to the year’s budgeting uncertainty, furloughs and issues such as poor communication from management.

“In an environment where you’re calling for more from your employees, leadership has to do a better job of sharing information, recognizing good work and empowering the workforce to succeed in a challenging environment,” he said.

Agencies have raised their scores, Stier added, when they’ve applied these strategies, particularly during times of uncertainty and gridlock.

NASA officials said they regularly discuss worker satisfaction.

“We talk about culture issues and employee engagement at every senior leadership meeting,” said Jeri Buchholz, NASA’s assistant administrator for human capital. She added that the agency has also focused on leadership development to ensure that it is “building model supervisors.”

Jeh Johnson, confirmed as homeland security secretary Monday, is walking into a major challenge at his department, where workers at 22 agencies, including those that patrol the nation’s borders and screen passengers at airports, feel like TSA’s Stacy Bodtman: Progress has been too slow.

DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said that employees are Homeland Security’s greatest resource and that the department is “committed to providing them with the resources and support they need to carry out our mission to protect the homeland.”

Former acting homeland security secretary Rand Beers this year ordered a series of additional surveys to better understand employees’ views about the department.

The new department chief has promised to focus on filling leadership vacancies, a persistent problem for the decade-old DHS. Customs and Border Protection has operated without a Senate-confirmed commissioner during the Obama administration. DHS hasn’t had an inspector general in nearly three years, though President Obama nominated Food and Drug Administration official John Roth for that position last month. And an acting director with no law enforcement experience is running Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“This sends a signal that homeland security is not a priority for this administration,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), referring to DHS’s leadership troubles.

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), blamed Senate Republicans last week for the leadership vacancies, accusing the GOP of trying to “obstruct and deny” the president’s nominations through filibusters, a practice the Senate voted to end last month for many political appointments.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said Congress should ensure competitive pay for DHS personnel so the department doesn’t lose employees to the private sector. He added that he expects conditions to improve as the remaining leadership positions are filled with permanent officials.

“I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy,” Carper said. “In light of these numbers, there’s only one way to go, and that’s up.”

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