A member of the U.S. Secret Service Uniform Division guards an intersection near the White House in May. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The latest installment in the ongoing saga of federal workforce hiring problems comes from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The department’s three largest law enforcement organizations (Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Secret Service) are close to authorized strength, but that masks a serious issue: substantial delays in hiring.

Those delays are documented in a new report from the department’s Office of Inspector General (IG).

“The inability to hire law enforcement personnel in a timely manner may lead to shortfalls in staffing, which can affect workforce productivity and morale, as well as potentially disrupt mission critical operations,” said the report dated Oct. 31.

Data in the report indicate the days from job announcement to hire ranged from seven months to a year in fiscal 2015, depending on the agency. As bad as that might seem, in most cases the time to hire is better now than before.

For example, among the three law enforcement agencies, ICE deportation officers had the shortest time to hire, 212 days. That’s a major improvement from the 1,161 days — more than three years — in 2012. Unfortunately, the Secret Service Uniformed Division is going backward. It took 272 days to hire in 2014. That jumped to 359, a 32 percent increase, in one year.

DHS agreed with the inspector general’s five recommendations.

“As noted in the Inspector General’s report, DHS has taken a range of steps to reduce the time it takes to hire law enforcement personnel …” Neema Hakim, a department spokesman said by email. “DHS has been undertaking a Department-wide initiative to streamline and improve hiring processes, which has included collecting more information on hiring, automating the process where appropriate, and increasing the number of human resources support staff.”

Recruitment events, allowing an applicant to complete several hiring steps, including polygraph testing, at one location, have significantly reduced hiring time, Hakim added. In the case of a Secret Service Uniformed Division “all-inclusive hiring events” cut time to hire by almost 30 percent. “CBP’s expedited hiring events have decreased time-to-hire for qualified applicants by 63 percent,” Hakim said.

The IG studied the department’s hiring problems at the request of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees.

“Chronic and systemic personnel shortfalls and lengthy hiring times jeopardize DHS’s homeland security mission,” said a 2015 House report on the DHS appropriation bill. “To stem skyrocketing attrition and hiring shortfalls,” the House committee directed the department to develop a corrective action plan based on a “root cause analysis.”

One cause is insufficient staff needed to process new personnel.

“At the Secret Service, for example, the lack of staff has affected completion of polygraph examinations and background investigations of applicants,” according to the IG report. “Special Agents in field offices conduct polygraph examinations and background investigations as collateral duties. Officials explained it is difficult for these Special Agents to complete these collateral duties because their primary investigative and protective functions take precedence.”

DHS staffing shortages go beyond the law enforcement agencies.

“More generally, all of DHS has experienced a reduction in mission support functions, including human resources personnel,” the IG reported. “Hiring freezes and attrition have affected staffing levels of human resources personnel across the Department and delayed applicant processing and hiring.”

This poses real problems for Border Patrol agents.

“We are over 1,500 agents below the congressionally mandated floor …” said Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, “and that has severe negative consequences for operations.

“Many areas like the Rio Grande Valley Sector are seeing huge influxes of people and cannot maintain the operational tempo to deal with the detainees in a timely manner,” he added.

In addition to staffing issues, some DHS units are not up to speed with automated systems.

CBP is a leader with one system that tracks applicants. ICE and the Secret Service are behind.

“For example, ICE uses six systems, which ICE officials said are not user friendly or well designed,” the report said. “Further, according to these officials, the systems require manual data entry, and large amounts of data have to be moved among the various systems.”

That sounds like a big mistake in waiting.

The Secret Service isn’t much better, with its two applicant tracking systems that don’t communicate and require manual manipulation, “making it difficult and cumbersome to process large numbers of applicants.”

It’s not clear if short staffing was to blame for a significant error by the department’s office of chief human capital officer that the IG found. The report said the department miscalculated and reported the wrong time to hire information to Congress and the Office of Personnel Management.

In the case of Border Patrol agents, the department underreported time to hire by more than 200 days.

Agencies need greater foresight to anticipate staffing needs and budget allocations, said Patrick P. O’Carroll, executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

He reminded DHS officials that their “life blood is their people.”

Read more:

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