Workforce

Watchdogs warn on DHS vacancies

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Frequent turnover and persistent vacancies across the Department of Homeland Security are limiting the ability of employees to carry the agency's myriad missions.

In addition to the high-profile turnover at the top of the agency, the department is operating with 50 vacancies in senior leadership positions, said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) at a May 1 House Homeland Security Committee hearing that was originally scheduled to go over budget concerns with top officials.

Vacant posts include the heads of the Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans, the Science and Technology Directorate, the Management Directorate and the CFO. Various component agencies -- Customs and Border Protection, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Secret Service -- also lack Senate-confirmed leaders.

Gene Dodaro, U.S. comptroller general, said the lack of permanent staff can have a widespread impact, particularly in a department with as many responsibilities -- and vacancies -- as DHS.

"I've been in GAO for 46 years, and I've seen a lot of things," he said, adding the turnover at DHS registers "in the upper areas of concern."

John Roth, former inspector general for DHS, testified the vacancies "significantly hamper" the agency's missions in acquisition management, IT systems, personnel and cybersecurity.

"In the best of times, DHS is an unruly and difficult to manage organization," said Roth. "We are not in the best of times."

While officials in DHS's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency have said the recent upheaval among their parent agency's top leaders hasn't affected their work, prolonged vacancies and uncertain leadership could have serious implications for responsibilities under the department's purview.

The vacancies have a particularly pronounced effect in missions requiring long-term focus and commitment. Roth specifically pointed to training as an example of an activity that's "much more difficult" with vacancies and acting personnel.

From a workforce perspective, Dodaro said, the vacancies also present a challenge in filling skills gaps in areas such as acquisition, cybersecurity and financial management.

DHS already has long-standing morale problems. The department has historically ranked, and continues to rank, at the bottom of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey for its size category.

Another responsibility the vacancies can impair is the actual oversight of the department itself: DHS has been without a permanent inspector general since Roth retired in November 2017.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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