As Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson grapples with the Secret Service scandal and evolving terrorist threats, he is also facing widespread and growing job dissatisfaction within his own department, according to unpublicized employee survey results.
The government’s 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey portrays a Department of Homeland Security still facing debilitating morale problems that have plagued it for years but worsened during the Obama administration — and which have grown more serious since Johnson took over in December.
While the survey shows that the vast majority of DHS employees are hard-working and dedicated to their mission to protect the homeland, many say the department discourages innovation, treats employees in an arbitrary fashion and fails to recruit skilled personnel.
The results render a harsh initial verdict on Johnson, who took office nearly a year ago and has vowed to improve morale: DHS employees’ views of their leaders, already abysmally low in 2013, plunged even more this year.
At the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, for example, only 21 percent of employees in this year’s survey held positive views of their leadership’s ability to “generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce,’’ according to results for that division.
The survey numbers were provided to The Washington Post by a person requesting anonymity, to avoid antagonizing DHS officials. The division is DHS’s research and development arm.
Reginald Brothers, DHS’s undersecretary for science and technology, said in an internal e-mail to employees on Wednesday that the results show “sustained dissatisfaction among S&T employees regarding the organization as a place to work.’’
The Office of Personnel Management, which conducts the annual employee survey, has not released the government-wide numbers or those of individual departments. An OPM spokeswoman said Thursday that they would be made public within several weeks.
DHS last week posted its department-wide 2014 survey results in a difficult-to-find part of its Web site, but it has not publicized the data. The survey has long been a measure of federal job satisfaction and a guide for government leaders, and it forms the basis of the widely read annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report.
Internally, Johnson and DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas have acknowledged morale problems and embraced the challenge of fixing them, outlining a series of efforts that include an employee steering committee dedicated to fairness in hiring and promotions, enhanced employee training programs and the reestablishment of a dormant DHS program to honor outstanding department employees.
“You deserve a workplace that recognizes your efforts, supports your great work, and fulfills your highest aspirations,’’ Johnson and Mayorkas wrote Friday in a department-wide e-mail, which was provided by DHS officials. “It is clear from feedback since the creation of this Department that many of you do not feel that you have such a workplace. The results from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey taken earlier this year continue to communicate this point strongly…. The results are not good.’’
Johnson and Mayorkas said the survey results will further inform their work and “catalyze” their efforts.
“As your leaders, we understand that the responsibility to deliver starts with us,” the seniore officials wrote. “We embrace that responsibility.’’
The poor results come as Johnson, the fourth person to lead the sprawling domestic safety agency, has taken on an increasingly prominent role as an Obama administration spokesman on matters ranging from the problem of unaccompanied minors crossing the southwestern border to the problems at the Secret Service. It was Johnson who announced the resignation last week of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson.
President George W. Bush created DHS after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, bringing together more than a dozen agencies and upwards of 230,000 employees who handle a range of duties, from border protection and airport security to emergency response and protecting the commander in chief.
Since its inception, the department has been plagued by poor morale and a work environment widely seen as dysfunctional, which has contributed to an exodus of top-level officials in recent years, many of whom have been lured by private security companies.
Over the past four years, employees have left DHS at a rate nearly twice as fast as for the federal government overall, according to a review of a federal database.
Johnson has focused on these problems from the start, calling vacancies and morale his top priorities before his December confirmation. He has made major progress on reducing a top-level DHS vacancy rate that had reached 40 percent.
But the entrenched morale problems have proven far trickier, the new survey results show. Though the survey is only an initial test of Johnson’s leadership, it does measure the first six months of his tenure. OPM announced April 29 that it was mailing the surveys to a sampling of federal employees over the following two weeks and that they had until early June to complete the detailed questionnaires.
More than 40,000 DHS employees responded. The department had already ranked dead-last among large agencies last year in the Partnership for Public Service’s best places to work survey — drawn from the OPM data — and this year’s results were even worse. Only 41.6 percent of DHS employees said they were satisfied with the department, down from 44.4 percent a year earlier.
Much of their frustration was directed at senior leadership. In 2013, only 29.9 percent of employees department-wide had a positive view of their leaders’ ability to “generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce.’’ That number plunged to 24.9 percent this year.
Asked if their leaders “maintain high standards of honesty and integrity,’’ just 39.1 percent of employees responded positively. Last year, that number was 44.5 percent.
* Lisa Rein contributed to this story