Yet the session called by House and Senate homeland security subcommittees went well beyond a probe into agency employees improperly reviewing the file of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who had once been denied Secret Service employment. The culture of the agency, the morale of its staff and its discipline of wayward employees all were called into question.
Those questions apply across the government, as House subcommittee on oversight and management efficiency Chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa.) made clear at the top of his opening statement: “The purpose of this hearing is to examine failures at the U.S. Secret Service and their implications government-wide.”
There was praise too, for the agency after its successful, simultaneous operations protecting Pope Francis, Chinese President Xi Jinping and diplomats at the UN General Assembly in September. Ninety-nine percent of his staff “are doing the right thing,” Clancy said.
But the failures stem from what many in Congress see as a culture — and not just at the Secret Service — that winks at misdeeds, provides slow and inadequate discipline for employees and damages morale. Increasingly, Congress is calling on agency chiefs to hold their employees accountable for transgressions. Last year, it approved legislation making it easier to fire Department of Veterans Affairs senior executives by undercutting their civil service protections. Some on the Hill are itching to push similar measures across the government.
The drive for swifter and harsher punishment for feds was demonstrated by Rep. E.L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.), who insisted Clancy “tell me what you’ve done” to the 45 staffers who improperly looked at the Chaffetz file, a potential violation of the law. “Have these people been fired…” Carter demanded. “Why haven’t you fired these people? They knew this was wrong. Don’t you agree? Don’t you agree? They knew this was wrong.”
If members of this elite law enforcement agency can dip into a congressman’s personnel record for fun, what can ordinary folks expect? “When their daughter starts dating some new guy,” might the agents probe personal information of the boyfriend’s family, said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee on regulatory affairs and federal management.
It was more of a warning than a question.
Congressional outrage is understandable, particular since the Chaffetz escapade was just the latest in a series of agency embarrassments. “Seems like there wasn’t an adult in the room,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee.
Workforce accountability is big in Congress and some agents might deserve dismissal. Yet, the rush to fire accused feds, at the Secret Service and elsewhere, displays little appreciation for due process rights that are designed not just to protect individual employees, but, more importantly, to protect a civil service that operates free from the purges of partisan politics.
Due process can be slow, sometimes much too slow. But knee-jerk firing is not the fix.
“Congress has been showing dangerous instincts lately when it comes to government management…” Donald F. Kettl, a University of Maryland public policy professor told the Federal Diary. “The ‘don’t just stand there, fire somebody—and if things don’t improve, fire more managers, faster strategy just isn’t working. And it’s making things worse.”
One thing it can make worse is morale, though that’s already in bad shape at the Secret Service.
“The Secret Service is a text book example of the fact that an organization’s culture can clearly change and not always for the better,” said John Palguta, a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, which publishes the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. “In 2005, the Secret Service was ranked by its employees in the top 25 percent of all agency subcomponents as a Best Place to Work and today it’s ranked in the bottom 25 percent. What was an organization with exceptional esprit de corps has become an organization seemingly under siege.
“The good news is that the process can be reversed. It takes a clear vision of the values and commitment to mission that need to be instilled, committed leadership, skilled managers, and resources. And it will take turnover among employees who are not able or willing to meet the high standards expected of them combined with a clear appreciation for and investment in the employees who do. Changing an organization’s culture is not fast or easy but it can absolutely be done.”
Some culture change might be in order on Capitol Hill too. Near the close of the hearing, Lankford put the Secret Service problems in a larger perspective that brought the troubles home.
“I’ve listened to some of the conversation on the dais about challenges with public relations nightmares and employees not doing their job and alcohol abuse…We could, quite frankly, flip the tables, and y’all could hold a hearing on members of Congress and have the same accusations,” he said. “And I would assure you it’s more than 1 percent of the members of Congress [who] have some of these exact same issues.”