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Opinion Homeland Security finally shows employee morale improvement, though still rates low

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson before a meeting at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in June. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Finally, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has some good news about employee morale.

It’s still a cellar dweller, but not quite as mired in the muck of low employee survey scores as it had been.

In fact, DHS, a mammoth hodgepodge of 22 agencies cobbled together following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, scored an increase of three percentage points in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) scheduled for released Tuesday. That’s better than the one percentage point government-wide hike, which also gives the Obama administration reason to cheer.

One and three percentage points might not sound like much, but those increases are considered significant in a survey in which every data point counts. And the data reflect more than inside federal agency baseball.

“A high performing government relies on an engaged, well-prepared workforce,” said acting Office of Personnel Management Director Beth Cobert. “The Employee Engagement Index score is 65 percent as compared to 64 percent in 2015. The global job satisfaction score is 61 percent, up from 60 percent in 2015. That score tells us that employees are even happier with their jobs, their pay and their organizations than they were in 2015.  It also means that they are more likely to recommend their agency to others.”

Employee morale drives performance for the individual and the agency. “Individual agency performance contributes to success for the entire federal government,” Cobert added, “which means better service for the American people.”

This year’s survey was conducted from April through June. Almost 408,000 employees in 80 agencies responded, a staff participation rate of nearly 46 percent.

The importance top federal officials give to FEVS was reflected by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s attendance, and that of DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, during the media call on a day when reports of terrorist attacks in New York and New Jersey dominated the news. This isn’t to suggest they were shirking their homeland security duties — a suspect was in custody before the call began.

But it does show how eager they are to trumpet morale improvement in a department where doom seemed to be its destiny.

“These results reflect that employee engagement at DHS, after six straight years of decline, went up three whole percentage points this year — from 53 percent in 2015 to 56 percent this year,” Johnson said. “This is no anomaly.”

That’s a statement of hope, not fact. One year doesn’t make a pattern.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, another regular bottom-feeder that oversees the Voice of America and other government broadcasters, also scored 56. But unlike DHS, BBG is going backward. It scored two points better last year.

Johnson credited his department’s improved results to several factors, including his and Mayorkas’s personal involvement with staffers. They talked with employees during 45 sessions in 22 cities. “In March I put on a TSA [Transportation Security Administration] uniform and worked alongside TSA personnel at BWI airport,” Johnson said. “From all these engagements, we heard employees’ top three concerns were pay, work/life balance and hiring.  We pushed out tool kits to managers and supervisors for conducting their own town hall meetings.”

“I kept hearing from [the Office of Personnel Management] that it will take more than a year to turn this big ship around,” Johnson told my colleague Lisa Rein. “One of the reasons I’m so pleased with the results this year is because I was so disappointed with the results last year.”

Johnson’s dedication to improving employee morale has been noticed on Capitol Hill.

“Should this trend continue, it will be even clearer that Secretary Johnson made morale improvement a top priority…” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. “Employee morale and engagement is critical for an agency the size of DHS to function effectively – our national security depends on it.”

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was on the call with Cobert and Johnson. The space agency boss is in a position to crow, although he didn’t, because NASA consistently rates at or near the top of FEVS results, and in the Partnership for Public Service’s annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, which uses the FEVS data.

NASA’s 2016 employee index score is 80, two points above last year. The Federal Trade Commission scored 82 this year, the highest in the large agency category and up four points from 2015.  The little-known Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission beat all with a score of 90, a 13-point jump from 2015. A one-year leap of that magnitude should call for steroid testing.

After the call, Bolden said his agency rates high because “we are focused on improving employee engagement and ensuring senior and especially mid-level managers focus on leadership and being good role models and mentors.”

He emphasized the importance of involving mid-level managers, those who deal more directly with staff. Bosses in other agencies should pay attention. It’s a strategy that works.

Read more:

[Homeland Security ranks dead last in 2015 morale – again  – but Jeh Johnson’s morale is high]

[Survey shows small 2015 gains in federal employee morale, though it continues to fall in some agencies]