GAO: Senior-level turnover at DHS double that of other agencies

DHS’ action to recruit and retain staff and comply with the Vacancies Reform Act (.pdf)

Turnover of senior-level employees at the Homeland Security Department is more than twice that at other major agencies, the Government Accountability Office said. Senior Executive Service (SES) and presidential appointees resigned or transferred from DHS at a rate of 12.8 percent last fiscal year and 14.5 percent in 2005. The average for all major departments was 6 percent last year and 7 percent in 2005, GAO said.

Excluding the Transportation Security Administration, DHS said it had 24 presidential appointments with four vacancies and 489 SES positions with 111 vacancies as of March 30. DHS added 73 SES positions in March.

DHS headquarters, TSA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency had the highest senior-level attrition rate. In the two-year period, headquarters experienced a turnover of more than half its senior employees through resignations or transfers to another executive branch department — 17 of 62 individuals in 2005 and 19 of 56 in 2006. TSA’s turnover was 25 of 160 individuals in 2005 and 21 of 145 in 2006; and FEMA lost four of 34 individuals in 2005 and seven of 34 in 2006.

In the four years since its creation, DHS has faced significant difficulties in transforming numerous agencies, and developing and implementing new strategies and programs for making the country more secure, said Robert Goldenkoff, GAO's acting director of homeland security and justice issues.

“We understand that this has not been an easy task, and the challenges of recruiting, hiring and retaining the right mix of individuals to carry the department’s mission forward has contributed to the complexities facing DHS,” he said in the report released July 16.

Although DHS is working to attract and retain employees, it must continue its efforts to reach an effective workforce management strategy if it plans to meet its mission, GAO said.

Despite the turnover, few DHS agency officials reported great difficulty in finding SES personnel with the skills and qualifications needed to fill vacant positions.

The GAO report follows findings the House Homeland Security Committee released last week stating that 24 percent of DHS’ executive resource positions, which include political appointees and senior career employees, remain unfilled. The committee reported 138 vacancies among the 575 total executive resource positions. GAO’s scope and time frame was somewhat different from that of the committee, Goldenkoff said.

According to GAO figures, the attrition rate at DHS was not as high as it was at the Housing and Urban Development and Education departments in 2005, but Education and DHS led all major agencies and were about equal last year.

DHS component agencies do not have to report information obtained from employees’ exit surveys to headquarters. DHS, however, told GAO it is evaluating whether to have its agencies use a single departmentwide survey or to report certain information about departing employees to headquarters. Department chief human capital officials told GAO they are developing a required report that components could populate with exit survey information. It will be rolled out later this year, in the first quarter of fiscal 2008.

DHS has used various strategies to recruit and retain employees in the past two years, GAO said. For example, DHS used workforce flexibilities allowed by the Office of Personnel Management to offer employee cash awards and hire staff under a two-year training program. DHS also implemented agreements under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, allowing nonfederal employees to be temporarily assigned to a federal agency to meet mission needs. As of September 2006, 36 such agreements were in place, roughly half of them in DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate. The department also used personal-services contracts to acquire talent from outside the government on a temporary basis — with 61 such contracts in place, almost all of them in Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard.

In the past four years, DHS filled 16 positions covered by the Vacancies Reform Act and complied with the tenure provision in all cases. The provision limits to 210 days the tenure of acting officials in certain positions that require presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. However, DHS did not always comply with the law’s reporting requirements and did not have one of the five management controls that GAO has reported as necessary — written procedures documenting how to comply. The act requires that agencies immediately report vacancies to Congress and the comptroller general.

DHS said it is following GAO’s recommendation and its Office of General Counsel had already developed a draft of written policies and procedures that clearly explain how officials comply with the act and how they are to carry out their duties.

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said the inevitable result of the senior-level vacancies “is turmoil at the top levels and an inability to plan effectively.”

“These issues speak clearly to the need for DHS to drop any plans it has to move ahead with aspects of a new and regressive personnel system," she said. The current personnel system works; it is DHS senior management that is currently not working.

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