In a city overflowing with police agencies, the officers of the Secret Service’s Uniformed Division (UD) project a particular professionalism.
Their crisp white shirts don’t even seem to wrinkle.
But their reputation no longer shines like it once did.
When Omar Jose Gonzalez scaled the White House fence last week, sprinted across the North Lawn and reached the mansion’s front door, he dirtied the image of an agency that until just a few years ago was incomparably clean.
How do the falling fortunes of an agency affect employee morale, which is an important factor in employee performance? Leadership is key to both.
One independent look at the Secret Service found employee attitudes to be in a nose dive long before the recent fence-jumper.
The “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” report by the Partnership for Public Service depicts an agency that seems to have lost its way. The agency’s index score dropped 13 points over three years, from 65.8 in 2011 to 52.8 last year. The score is a measure of employee satisfaction and commitment. The Best Places data is drawn from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which is administered by the Office of Personnel Management.
“These numbers are a blinking warning sign that something has gone off track here,” said John Palguta, the Partnership’s vice president for policy.
The report indicates that Secret Service employee attitudes are worse than at most other agencies and “going in the wrong direction,” Palguta added. The good news, such as it is, he said, is that agencies can improve with strong, creative leadership.
The Secret Service has a long way to go. Out of 300 agencies, it was 226th in the Best Places rankings.
“It’s suffering,” Palguta said.
Asked about the report, Edwin M. Donovan, the agency’s spokesman, cited the “long hours, extensive travel and time away from family” that employees face. Still, Donovan said “the agency recently advertised 72 officer positions and received 45,000 applications.”
It expects to have 11 classes of new officers in fiscal 2015, up from six in 2014 and just one in 2012. Since 2010, it generally has been under its authorized staffing level, but it is projected to exceed the authorized ceiling next year.
Not everyone feels that the Secret Service is suffering.
Albin Wells has been with the Uniformed Division for 11 years. Rather than damaging his morale, Wells said, the Gonzalez incident “makes me more acute to my job to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Morale goes up and down, Wells said. But he linked that more to not getting planned days off than the fence-jumper. That incident disappointed officers, Wells said, but actually could improve morale, as officers work to be more diligent.
Wells was in the company of two public affairs officers during an interview. Other officers would not talk at all. Members of the Secret Service are well trained not only in protection and law enforcement but also in press avoidance.
Reporters can be avoided, but once bad news hits, the stink can linger.
“They’ve received criticism they are totally not used to,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the uniformed officers. “That had an adverse effect on their morale.”
Unlike the Secret Service agents who partied with prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, two years ago or the agent found drunk and passed out in an Amsterdam hotel this year, the Gonzalez episode represents a failure of Secret Service systems as much as any individual’s poor performance.
As my colleagues Carol D. Leonnig and David A. Fahrenthold wrote this week, “five different rings of protection between the public sidewalk and the president’s front door failed so completely.”
In this case, the individuals staffing those rings were members of the agency’s Uniformed Division. They are responsible for protecting the White House. Plainclothes Secret Service agents provide personal protection for the president and his family.
You would think no place is better protected than the White House. Gonzalez shattered that notion.
Make no mistake, Secret Service officers and agents are a highly trained, highly professional corps of dedicated federal employees who are prepared to die if that’s what it takes to complete their mission. The nation owes them gratitude and respect.
But the nation is owed answers. It has a right to be severely critical of the Uniformed Division’s performance last week. There must be answers about why the systems failed and why the employees didn’t do their jobs until it was almost too late. Those questions will be asked at a House hearing Tuesday.
One question for Secret Service Director Julia Pierson should be about employee morale.
What is she doing to improve it?
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.