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Why is Secret Service morale so low?

Federal Diary

One of the most important secrets the Secret Service must uncover is how to improve the morale of its employees.

A new report shows it is a mystery the agency hasn’t solved.

But here are two clues — in recent years the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) has had too many leaders and too few staffers.

The 2015 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report indicates the Secret Service is not one of them. With its image as an elite law enforcement agency, protecting presidents and popes, severely battered by a series of security breaches in recent years, it’s no surprise the morale of its employees would fall.

For those who have seen the Secret Service up close, on a presidential trip or at the White House, the agency has a well-deserved reputation for professionalism, diligence and expertise. But mistakes, sometimes big mistakes, by a few have diminished the agency’s stature and that can hit the morale of many.

Just how much has been quantified by the Best Places report the Partnership for Public Service and the Deloitte consulting firm scheduled for release Tuesday. The Secret Service ranks 319 out of 320 agencies, with a “sizable drop in employee satisfaction in all 10 workplace categories.” The agency’s current index score measuring employee engagement is at a new low, 28 percent lower than last year and just half what it was 10 years ago.

“Poor leadership and a dysfunctional workplace have created a culture within the Secret Service that led to major security lapses, employee misconduct and low employee satisfaction and commitment scores,” the Partnership said.

A Secret Service statement said it is “making significant progress in addressing multiple challenges including staffing, training, employee morale and overall work-life balance issues….The Secret Service has a unique mission that demands extraordinary sacrifices requiring our personnel to routinely operate in high stress environments.  Our employees are required to travel on short notice, work rotating shifts and make numerous geographical moves across the country and world to accomplish our mission.

“In recent years, the pressures on the workforce have been exacerbated by resource reductions and unprecedented staffing shortages.  We expect the improvements implemented and those that are forthcoming will have a positive impact on employee satisfaction.”

The report shows a steep decline in Secret Service leadership, strategic management and work-life balance scores since 2011, based on results from the Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey.

If the present findings aren’t bad enough, the Partnership said “rankings continue to be an indicator of trouble ahead.”

What’s the problem?

Recently, there has been a high turnover of agency directors, three since 2013, who lead not enough employees.

“With the constant turnover, there has been no steady hand at the helm providing clear direction or focus on the workforce improvement and the needs of employees,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership, a nonprofit that focuses on government management and workplace issues. “Employees apparently have no place to turn. There has been a consistent and downward progression in every Secret Service workplace category, and at the end of the day, the buck stops with the leadership.”

The Partnership contrasted the hurting Secret Service with the FBI, which has an index score twice as high and registered increases in each of 10 categories. There has been steady leadership at the FBI, where directors are hired for a 10-year term.

While the USSS directors have turned over rapidly recently, the workforce they manage has fallen to risky levels.

Just last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a bipartisan report that highlighted the dangers of short-staffing the Secret Service. It’s unusual for Republicans to call for increasing the number of federal employees, but in this case the argument for doing so is clear on both sides of the partisan divide.

[New breaches revealed in report that says Secret Service is ‘in crisis’]

The committee, led by Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the senior Democrat, blamed budget related hiring freezes and increasing attrition for cuts, resulting in a situation where “the personnel who remain are significantly overworked, and morale is at an all-time low.” Adding to that, the “USSS has an extraordinarily inefficient hiring process which overburdens USSS with low-quality applicants.”

Their report said the agency is “in crisis” and also cited another report released last December by an independent panel commissioned to examine Secret Service lapses. It found that Secret Service agents and officers in the Uniformed Division “are stretched beyond their limits” and “work an unsustainable number of hours.”

[Strong report gives Secret Service bad rap on training]

So much for doing more with less.

“The USSS has been hampered from positive gains in large part due to its lack of funding support,” said Don Mihalek, the Secret Service agency president for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

Jan Gilhooly, president of the Association of Former Agents, said many agents are leaving after asking themselves “why work this hard seven days a week when I can go to another agency and get the same pay and have a much better family life?”

“You never get paid for the hours you work,” he added. “Very often you end up working for free.”

Unless the Secret Service becomes a volunteer organization, that is a morale buster.