A Slow Go at Homeland Security

By Stephen Barr
Friday, May 25, 2007

It's no secret that the government's biggest reorganization in 50 years has been troubled.

The Department of Homeland Security, which came together in a 2003 merger of 22 agencies, has encountered budget woes, turnover in senior leaders, contracting scandals and widespread criticism of its dilatory response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It's also no secret that another part of the reorganization -- changes in how Homeland Security employees would be paid, promoted and disciplined -- also has a long way to go.

That was underscored in a recently released report by the Office of Personnel Management, which, it should be noted, was the department's partner in designing the new pay and personnel rules.

"At the present time, the evidence suggests DHS is not keeping employees committed to the organization," the office's report said. Employee confidence in the department as a good place to work, with leaders that motivate them, has dropped, according to the report.

In rolling out a more rigorous system for rating employees on how well they meet their job expectations, the department "did not provide evidence performance ratings were reviewed by appropriate leadership to ensure accuracy and consistency in ratings," the report said.

Homeland Security officials envisioned that most of the department's 110,000 civil service employees would be covered by new workplace rules by 2005, but the report shows that progress has been much slower than predicted. As of April 12, OPM said, 9,770 employees were covered by the new rules and only 3,070 had received an annual job rating.

To be sure, the project was slowed by opposition from the National Treasury Employees Union and other unions. The unions filed a lawsuit to stop curbs on collective bargaining, a part of the department's original plan, and prevailed in federal court. The unions also stirred controversy in Congress, and the NTEU is lobbying in the House for a cut off of funding for the new personnel system, contending that other departmental initiatives are more critical.

Over time, Homeland Security officials reassessed and scaled back their timetable and plans. In February, department officials decided to try a new approach, noting that a pay-for-performance system depends on employees who accept change and managers who can rate the performance of employees in a credible manner.

The department tossed out the program's name, MaxHR, and drew up a replacement plan that focuses on how to improve hiring and better develop leaders in the department. It also calls for running a pilot program on the pay system to test concepts and practices.

In a letter accompanying the OPM report, Marta Brito PĂ©rez, the chief personnel official at Homeland Security, called the assessment incomplete. She said OPM "is not accurate" in asserting that the department "does not promote a high performance workforce." She also rejected the finding that the department has not shown progress in assuring fairness and consistency in how it rates the job performance of employees.

OPM recommended that Homeland Security set up an office to oversee implementation of the new personnel rules -- an approach used by the Pentagon for its new National Security Personnel System.

Establishing such an office would make "the program a corporate goal rather than an HR [human resources] initiative," the OPM report said. "This would provide higher visibility and help keep senior leaders engaged."

Talk Shows

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will discuss the National Security Personnel System and issues facing the nation's veterans on "Inside Government," sponsored by the American Federation of Government Employees, at 10 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com and WFED (1050 AM).

John Salamone, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Council at the Office of Personnel Management, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. Saturday on WJFK (106.7 FM).

Stephen Barr's e-mail address ishttp://barrs@washpost.com.

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