Homeland Security Turnover Hurts Morale, Officials Testify

By Stephen Barr
Friday, May 19, 2006

It's no secret that morale is a problem at the Homeland Security Department, created three years ago in a mega-merger that pulled together 185,000 employees working in more than 220 occupations.

Bush administration officials have tried to play down turf battles and culture clashes as transitional woes that would fade after the rank and file had worked together for five to seven years, but complaints by employees continue and are starting to get to the ears of members of Congress.

Yesterday, two senior department officials acknowledged that turnover in top management jobs there appears to be adversely affecting employee morale.

Answering questions at a House hearing, K. Gregg Prillaman , the department's chief human capital officer, and Dwight M. Williams , the department's chief security officer, suggested that the turnover rate at the top of the department spills downward into the ranks and influences morale.

Williams said senior leaders -- many are political appointees -- burn out because of long hours and then leave, creating gaps in the top management team. He said the department is more stable than it was 18 months ago but added, "We are not there yet."

The creation of the department, to some extent, was a "hostile takeover" and not something employees would have voted for, Prillaman said. Efforts are underway to train line managers how to better deal with employee issues, he said.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on management and oversight, raised the issue of vacant leadership posts at the outset of the hearing. His list included the undersecretary for science and technology, the commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, the chief financial officer, the assistant secretary for cyber security and the chief privacy officer.

The first three positions require Senate confirmation, and the department has nominees in various stages of the appointment process. But some jobs have been vacant for several months, and Rogers said "other key vacancies are expected soon.

"I am concerned this high turnover undermines the department's effectiveness," he said. "It could also very well weaken our efforts to integrate the department's many agencies and further erode employee morale."

Rogers held the hearing at the urging of Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.), who held up a sheaf of letters that he said had been sent him from Homeland Security employees. The employees, he said, think the department is driving away talent and that managers are struggling to motivate employees.

Meek pointed to MaxHR, the department's new performance-based pay system, as a source of anxiety for the employees. He questioned the fairness of new rules for how employees will appeal major disciplinary actions and for how unions negotiate on behalf of employees. Unions have successfully blocked the new rules in federal court, and the issues are before an appeals court.

Prillaman, who joined the department eight months ago, said the agency thinks the new pay and personnel system will improve morale, in part because managers and supervisors must undergo training to improve their skills in communication.

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