The Rx for DHS' low employee morale

To solve the tenacious morale problem at the Homeland Security Department, the agency needs to look to its top management and hold it accountable, according to a federal workforce expert.

Testimony at the March 22 hearing before the Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management spotlighted how DHS continues to struggle with low employee morale.

That problem dates back to at least 2004, when an Office of Personnel Management’s federal employee survey showed that only 56 percent of DHS employees reported being satisfied with their jobs, compared to 68 percent governmentwide, David Maurer, director of the Homeland Security and Justice Team at the Government Accountability Office, said in his testimony.

Despite ongoing actions to address the shortcomings, DHS continues to fall short on the morale issue. Maurer said while DHS has developed plans for addressing employee dissatisfaction, the agency has yet to address the key goals.

The March hearing was the fourth of its kind to examine DHS management issues. In his opening statement, Chairman Michael T. McCaul (R-Texas) said, "There is a sense of déjà’ vu for anyone following these hearings. While I believe DHS management is working to address their problems and moving in the right direction, by their own admission they have a long road ahead.”

To realize the vision of Secretary Janet Napolitano’s “One DHS,” McCaul said the agency will get far by resolving management issues such as developing a clear strategy that aligns with budget allocations, technology implementation and cutting waste and duplication.

Already underway is DHS’ three-pronged strategy to address management and workforce issues, said Catherine Emerson, DHS’ chief human capital officer. The first aspect institutionalizes a mandate to all component heads to prioritize employee engagement. The second element promotes a unified agency through better employee communication, training and employee recognition. The third part strengthens the leadership skills among DHS management.

This multidimensional approach would help DHS improve its Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey scores in coming years, Emerson testified. “The correlation between morale and employees’ need to feel connected to their leadership and to feel valued are unmistakable links to improving our overall scores,” she said.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation successfully turned around its dismal scores and rose to the top of the Best Places to Work in Federal Government rankings in 2011.  The agency began a multiyear culture change program in 2008, including clear and repeated messages from upper management. Soliciting employee feedback also became increasingly important, so did communication between managers and staff.

“That turnaround started with top management, and you have to have top management buy-in,” John Palguta, vice president at the Partnership for Public Service told Federal Computer Week. At DHS, Napolitano has “certainly made it clear to managers that she wants them to do something about this, and they’re cascading this down,” he added. 

Another, crucial step involves getting employees on board. Soliciting them for feedback and then asking what can be done differently can have a positive impact on workplace morale. And as employees feel more engaged and valued for their contributions, they become more productive, which ultimately strengthens the agency’s mission, Palguta said.

“This is not just about happy employees; it’s about getting the job at the agency done,” he added.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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