Afflicted with the lowest morale of any large federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security did what comes naturally to many in government.
It decided to study the problem. And then study it some more.
The first study cost about $1 million. When it was finished, it was put in a drawer. The next one cost less but duplicated the first. It also ended up in a drawer.
So last year, still stumped about why the employees charged with safeguarding Americans are so unhappy, the department commissioned two more studies.
Now, with the nation continuing to face threats to the homeland, some officials who have worked inside the agency acknowledge it should spend less time studying its internal problems and more energy trying to fix them.
“There’s really no excuse for the department expending finite resources on multiple studies, some at the same time, to tell the department pretty much what everyone has concluded: that there are four-to-five things that need to be done for morale,” said Chris Cummiskey, who left DHS in November after serving as its third-highest-ranking official. “You don’t need $2 million worth of studies to figure that out.”
Cummiskey added that DHS Secretary Jeh C. Johnson “understands this and is focused on delivering meaningful results for DHS employees.”
Since taking over the department in late 2013, Johnson has focused on raising morale and stemming high turnover, problems that date to the George W. Bush administration. Many DHS employees have said in the annual government “viewpoint” survey of federal employees that their senior leaders are ineffective; that the department discourages innovation, and that promotions and raises are not based on merit. Others have described in interviews how a stifling bureaucracy and relentless congressional criticism makes DHS an exhausting, even infuriating, place to work.
Many of the frustrations stem from the way DHS was created, with 22 agencies from across the government urgently welded into one department after the 9/11 attacks. Employees today say those agencies still have clashing cultures and are subject to byzantine congressional oversight, with more than 90 committees and subcommittees retaining some jurisdiction.
Johnson and Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have “personally committed themselves to improving the morale and workforce satisfaction across the Department of Homeland Security,” said Ginette Magana, a DHS spokeswoman. “They are directly engaging with employees, listening to their concerns, working diligently to improve employee recognition and training, and are focused on strengthening the skills and abilities of every employee. She said the studies “comprise a first step in a comprehensive process dedicated to tangible results.”
At the same time, the department has continued to pay for even more outside reports.
“It’s a big problem, not just at DHS but across the government,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that seeks to make government more effective. “You see study, study, study and no execution or fulfilling of the recommendations.”
Stier’s group contributed to one of the most recent DHS studies, a $420,000 analysis completed late last year by the consulting firm Deloitte. But Stier said his help came with a caution. “It’s time to get moving,” he recalled telling department officials, “and not simply study the issue.”
Three years ago, officials in the department’s office of health affairs, which provides expertise on national security medical issues, began to wonder about the health of one of their own programs. In response to low scores on the viewpoint survey, officials had set up a program, DHSTogether, aimed at making DHS “one of the best places to work in the Federal government.” But it wasn’t working out.
So the department tapped the Institute of Medicine, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, to find out why.
A committee of 11 experts visited about 25 DHS locations in Texas, New York and the Washington area. It produced a 268-page report under a contract, which allocated $588,000 for the work. About $500,000 in additional funds for the study came out of another line item in the contract, according to contracting documents and a source familiar with them.
The result: virtually nothing.
“It was not a very good light to shine on any of us, so we just hid it,” said one DHS employee familiar with the report, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation by supervisors.
The report, released in September 2013, concluded that DHSTogether had been starved of money and support from DHS leaders and devolved into little more than an ineffective suicide prevention program. The document made a series of recommendations to improve employee resilience and morale, calling it “imperative that senior leaders at DHS” get more involved.
One of those leaders was Rafael Borras, who had just taken over as acting deputy secretary, the department’s No. 2 post. “I’ve never seen it, never heard of it, didn’t know they were doing it,” he recalled. “At no time did anyone raise with me, ‘Oh, remember this study we did?’ ”
A DHS official said the department has taken several steps in response to the institute’s study. These include setting up a leadership council, embarking on further research to measure employee resilience, and drafting a five-year strategic plan for DHS workforce “readiness and resilience,” as the study had urged.
When a congressional committee asked a year ago about what had come of the institute’s study, DHS officials also cited the five-year plan, saying it would be presented to senior managers by May 2014.
Nearly a year later, that strategic plan remains merely a draft in DHS’s computer system. A copy of a draft, obtained by The Washington Post, contains phrases such as “add introduction,” “add conclusion” and “insert photos.”
“There is no plan,” said one DHS employee. “It just sat there and sat there and it sits today. We are clearly just running around doing studies, getting recommendations and not taking them.”
The same month in 2012 that department officials signed the contract with the Institute of Medicine, they commissioned someone else to study virtually the same issues. DHS’s office of health affairs awarded a $250,000 contract to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (CSTS) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., to examine the DHSTogether program and the mental well-being of employees.
Though the contract has been extended twice, people familiar with it said the center produced nothing more than a short draft in August.
The draft offers an explanation for why the center had not made more progress. “Other entities had already engaged employees in efforts to assess morale,” it said, and as a result, DHS employees were developing “interview/survey fatigue.”
The document continued, “Several other studies with significant overlap to CSTS’s work efforts were underway at the same time.”
A department spokeswoman said the center’s study is also expected to produce other steps, including employee resilience training and a briefing to senior DHS leadership.
DHS employees say the draft itself has been ignored inside the department.
Over the last year, the department’s concern with morale has intensified. The 2014 Best Places To Work in the Federal Government Survey, published by Stier’s group, ranked DHS dead last among large agencies.
And the department has launched two more studies.
The Deloitte analysis, which focused on “employee engagement,” was finished late last year.
People familiar with the contract said Deloitte focused on the Senior Executive Service — the government’s top career managers — who have been leaving DHS at a high rate in recent years.
Deloitte delivered a set of recommendations to DHS leaders late last year. A spokeswoman for the firm referred questions to DHS. A DHS spokeswoman said the firm’s work built on the previous studies and had produced an “implementation plan,” but declined to elaborate.
Just as Deloitte was completing its report, Fairfax-based professional services firm ICF was starting a separate morale study of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, the department’s research and development arm, according to interviews and agency documents.
An internal e-mail, sent to the directorate’s employees in December, described the $250,000 study as a “follow-up survey” to the annual viewpoint survey. For the past several years, the science and technology directorate has ranked especially low, even compared with other parts of DHS.
Dozens of directorate employees have been interviewed about their morale by ICF as part of an effort, as described by another internal e-mail, to “identify and prioritize those areas where S&T can undertake corrective action by engaging directly with S&T federal employees.”
After the study is done, that e-mail added, ICF will follow up on the results — with another study.