The Department of Homeland Security consistently ranks near the bottom among federal agencies for job satisfaction in the government’s annual employee survey, and that trend didn’t change last week when the 2013 results came out.

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Homeland Security’s job-satisfaction score this time around stands at 57 points,  the second-lowest among all executive-branch departments and a decline of four points compared to its 2012 number. Only Housing and Urban Development, with a score of 56, fared worse.

This is a persistent problem for the department. It became so glaring that Congress held a hearing last year to examine the issue.

The agency’s 2013 decline in job satisfaction is no surprise considering that the government-wide score fell by two points this year, but Homeland Security fared worse with its four-point drop.

In terms of leadership, the department earned a score of 50, ranking second from last behind the Broadcasting Board of Governors. In 2011, DHS earned a 55, so the problem has grown worse.

Sequester furloughs and a years-long pay freeze — not to mention animosity from certain segments of Congress — have almost certainly played a role in eroding morale across government. But union officials contend there are other factors at play.

National Treasury Employees Union president Colleen M. Kelley said in an interview on Tuesday that leadership problems, staffing levels and a lack of engagement with labor groups have contributed to a loss of spirit among the 25,000 Customs and Border Protection workers her group represents.

“I think it’s inappropriate to make excuses about why the numbers are low,” Kelley said. “There’s been a lot of talk about it, but nothing substantive has been done to involve employees in solving the problems in their daily work life.”

The Partnership for Public Service, which analyzes the annual survey results, concluded in a September report that better communication between labor and management the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office increased its satisfaction score by 16 points between 2009 and 2012.

American Federation of Government Employees president J. David Cox said in a statement on Tuesday that the problems stem from staffing and equipment shortages, reliance on contractors, and the dangers involved with much of the work Homeland Security performs.

“Add to that three years of frozen pay and threats of cuts to retirement benefits, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for low morale,” Cox said.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Rand Beers told employees last week that he would deploy a series of internal surveys to better understand why the department’s workers are still so dissatisfied, according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post.

“As a department, we continually assess both our weaknesses and strengths so that we can look for improvement,” Beers said. “We can and must do better.”

Homeland Security officials have sung that tune for years, but the numbers have only grown worse since 2011, when the department earned a job-satisfaction score seven points higher than this year’s number. Now the agency is promising to conduct surveys to determine why its survey scores are so low.

“The 2011 and 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys noted DHS employees’ belief in their work and a willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty,” said Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron. “Given this strong foundation and our commitment to employee engagement, we hope to continue to make progress in the coming years.”

The report from the Partnership for Public Service offers clues for how agencies can boost their survey scores. For instance, it notes that the Department of Transportation, which ranked as the most improved in 2010 and 2012, increased its satisfaction numbers “through enhanced employee communication — listening to what employees were saying and responding to their concerns.”

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood credited the department’s comeback in large part to a contract agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration’s air-traffic controllers. “There was no secret around here about how disenchanted National Air Traffic Controllers Association workers were for not having a contract for five years,” he said in the report.

For what it’s worth, the survey results from previous years suggest that just a few Homeland Security agencies have dragged down an otherwise solid job-satisfaction score for the department as a whole.

The annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, which are based off the survey results, showed especially low index scores for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Intelligence and Analysis division, all of which scored far below the government-wide average of 60.8 points — none of them scored above 54 points.

Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and Citizenship and Immigration Services all earned much higher ratings than Homeland Security’ overall score of 52.9.

The Best Places index score measures the performance of agencies and their subcomponents related to employee satisfaction and commitment, based on numbers from the employee viewpoint survey.

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