Getting a handle on the morale of the federal workforce is tricky, but the results of a government-sponsored survey suggest that the Department of Homeland Security has a big morale problem.

On key areas covered by the survey, department employees clearly seemed to be sending a message to the department's political appointees and senior executives. In most categories, the employee attitudes were less positive and more negative than those registered by their counterparts across the government.

About half of the Homeland Security employees checked the "disagree" or "strongly disagree" boxes when asked if promotions are based on merit, if creativity and innovation are rewarded, if the best workers are rewarded on a timely basis.

A significant percentage of survey respondents, 44.6 percent, said they do not have "sufficient resources" -- defined as people, materials or budget -- "to get my job done."

Only 20 percent believed that "personnel decisions are based on merit"; 26 percent said they have a chance for a better job in the department; 28 percent said they were satisfied with the policies and practices of senior leaders; and 29 percent believed that disputes and grievances are resolved fairly where they work.

On key issues, the survey results for Homeland Security were below the government-wide averages. For example, on the leadership question, 28 percent of Homeland Security employees gave a positive response, while 40 percent of all survey respondents expressed satisfaction with the policies and practices of their senior leaders.

The employee views were gathered by the Office of Personnel Management in late 2004. About 10,500 Homeland Security employees, out of 20,000 selected, responded to the survey. The department has about 166,000 employees.

The question, of course, is what to take from the employee responses.

Michael Jackson, the department's deputy secretary, told employees in a memo, "Given the department's youth and the state of transformation, the overall results were not unexpected."

Ronald J. James, the department's chief human capital officer, said he was encouraged by survey findings that showed employees "identify with the mission and understand what they do is important."

Jackson and James said the department will address employee perceptions. "We do not plan to circle the wagons. We plan to react in a positive way," James said.

Labor leaders said the results show that the department is not listening to its employees. "DHS employees are unhappy, and I think their morale is at an all-time low," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said: "I don't view this as growing pains but as a desperate cry for help. It's a clear warning bell to me that they are on the verge of an implosion."

During 2004, the department coped with hiring freezes, budget snarls and continuing, extraordinary pressure to improve services and harden defenses against terrorism. On top of that, the department became the administration's first laboratory for new civil service rules that could be the model for dramatic changes in how federal employees are paid, promoted and disciplined.

"A lot of what you're seeing here is the impact of drift at all levels of the department in 2004," said Paul C. Light, a New York University professor who has studied the department. "No one had the answer to many of the legitimate questions being raised, and the answers to the questions they did have were troubling at best."

James Champy, an author and consultant on organizational redesign and change, said he has been impressed by the department's efforts to plan for the future. The survey responses, he said, reflect "personal uncertainty on the part of people" about what restructuring and new rules "mean for me."

To address employee anxieties, Champy said, "I'd pull in the management team and say, 'You've got to get out there and get in conversation with your people.' . . . The angst only gets satisfied when supervisors and managers are in conversation with the broad working population."

James said better communications with employees and better training for managers are high on the department's priority list. "We should listen and respond affirmatively," he said.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com