Dealing with the doldrums at DHS S&T

The Science and Technology Directorate came in dead last in employee satisfaction for the second time, and Undersecretary Reginald Brothers said he wants to confront the problem head on.

Shutterstock image: job stress.

A new undersecretary is hoping that addressing "systemic issues" will begin to yield positive results at the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, which again ranked at the bottom of an annual report on employee satisfaction.

According to the 2014 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings by the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte, the DHS directorate tied for dead last out of 314 federal components. It shared that position with another DHS agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And DHS' Office of Intelligence and Analysis was second to last.

Although landing at the bottom of the list again is bad news for S&T, there was some encouraging news: S&T's employee satisfaction score rose almost 4 points since last year's survey, from 32 to 35.8 on a scale of 100.

The survey was the grimmest in years across the board, with feds' morale dropping to an all-time low in 2014. Average scores for employee satisfaction and commitment were 56.9 out of 100, the lowest since the Best Places to Work survey was first conducted in 2003.

'Understanding the systemic issues'

S&T Undersecretary Reginald Brothers, who came aboard in April, said he wants to make employee morale a top priority.

"For S&T to establish itself as a thought leader and engine for homeland security innovation, it is critical that we understand the systemic issues that exist within the workforce and act to correct them," Brothers said in a statement emailed to FCW.

As part of that effort, he implemented an Organizational Health Assessment to gauge employee opinions and concerns. On Dec. 9, he sent a memo to S&T employees asking for their confidential input on an employee satisfaction survey by Dec. 23.

"With the recent release of governmentwide survey results, this effort is more timely than ever," Brothers said in the memo, which was obtained by FCW. "I recognize that we are all facing some survey fatigue, but I assure you this effort is separate and distinct. It's specifically about S&T for S&T -- and this survey will drive change."

He said the survey is part of a comprehensive study that will fuel discussions among focus groups and employee councils. "Morale is an important driver of empowerment and a critical component of any high-performing, highly effective R&D organization," he wrote. "Therefore, understanding the systemic issues is critical to all of our success."

DHS' low scores drew congressional attention, too. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said in a statement that he was "disheartened" to see that DHS employees' morale was among the lowest at federal agencies and that the agency lacks a strong sense of cohesion.

But Carper said he was encouraged by DHS' Employee Engagement Executive Steering Committee and efforts by Secretary Jeh Johnson, Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and other top managers to improve DHS as a workplace.

Congress should share some of the blame for the low numbers for failing to provide consistent funding and clearer authorities, Carper said, adding that moving ahead on the consolidated agency headquarters project in Washington would help.

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