Morale at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is so low that it was the subject of a congressional hearing Thursday morning.

“DHS employees strongly believe in their work and mission. But what does it say when only 37 percent of DHS employees believe senior leaders motivate them and only 37 percent are satisfied with their senior leaders’ policies and practices?” asked Rep. Michael T. McCaul (R-Texas), citing the Federal Viewpoint Survey. He is chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight, investigations and management.

The reason most often cited at the hearing was leadership.

“The solution must come from the top,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the full committee.

“Unfortunately, the position responsible for establishing human capital priorities, recommending program improvements, and implementing corrective actions – the Chief Human Capital Officer – has seen one of the highest turnover rates out of all Department leadership positions.”

DHS has had eight different top personnel managers, including those in an acting capacity since 2003, Thompson added. “Most last about 13 months.”

One saying repeated during the hearing was a variation of: “People don’t leave jobs. They leave managers.”

Thad Allen, a senior vice president of the Booze Allen Hamilton consulting firm, was the first to use that line at the hearing. Allen, a now-retired admiral of the Coast Guard, was the lead federal official in charge of the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The Coast Guard is a DHS agency.

“Let me state at the outset that it is my belief that morale is not an objective to be achieved in an organization. It is rather the natural by- product of high performing people and organizations,” he said.

“When there is a shared vision of the mission, commitment to the shared values of an organization and strong and effective leadership that enables employees to be successful morale ‘happens.’”

Catherine V. Emerson, the current DHS chief human capital officer, said the panel is implementing a three-pronged strategy to improve employee morale at DHS:

1) Establishing an Employee Engagement Executive Steering Committee and institutionalizing a mandate “to prioritize employee engagement.”

2) Improving employee communication and training; emphasizing diversity, inclusion and employee recognition;

3) Strengthening the leadership skills and capacity of DHS supervisors and managers.

No representatives of rank and file employees testified, though Emerson, who represented management, is a career DHS employee.


Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP