How low can morale go at DHS?

Marta Perez says the department has made significant progress in improving morale.

Marta Brito Perez, chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department, recently acknowledged that employee morale is low at DHS. Although she insisted that “significant progress is being made,” some lawmakers are skeptical.

The House Homeland Security Committee said it is concerned about employee morale at DHS and wants answers. “It’s no secret that morale in the department is low — one of the lowest of all federal agencies,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee’s chairman.

In its 2007 annual report on DHS, the committee gave the department a failing grade for employee morale.
And most recently, in an independent study, DHS placed 29th out of 30 large agencies in the 2007 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government study for employment satisfaction and engagement.

“The overwhelming evidence is that DHS is the single worst Cabinet-level department when it comes to personnel,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), a member of the committee’s Management, Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee.

In testimony before the subcommittee April 19, Perez agreed that reports of low worker morale at DHS are disappointing. But she said “mergers can create a great  deal of anxiety for the workforce and that initial resistance is common.” The department was cobbled together from 22 separate federal agencies under the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

“DHS is only four years into this journey,” Perez told the subcommittee.
“While we are making great progress, it will take time to become a fully integrated organization.”

To confront the morale problem, Perez said she plans to meet with employees and their representatives and solicit their feedback. “We will conduct focus groups with employees from across the department in order to learn more and act on their concerns on key issues such as leadership and communication,” she said.

In addition, Perez said the department’s new personnel strategy, called the Human Capital Operational Plan (HCOP), will serve as a road map for DHS’ efforts to integrate its human-resources management programs. That plan replaces a program named MaxHR, which didn’t include hiring, retention, training and vocational initiatives.

“This is not just a name change,” Perez told the subcommittee. However, she added, HCOP retains the controversial performance management element of MaxHR. “We’re keeping the area of evaluating our employees,” she said.

The department’s unions remain skeptical about HCOP.

“I don’t believe for a minute that MaxHR is dead,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “It just has a new name.”
The union, which represents about 15,000 employees at Customs and Border Protection, is concerned about employee rights on adverse actions, appeals and performance management under the new plan, Kelley said.

J. David Cox, national secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees, also voiced doubts about HCOP’s performance rating system.

“In the new system, failure to meet a single expectation requires a rating of ‘unacceptable,’ which in turn requires an employee to be fired, demoted or reassigned,” he said.

Even the name of DHS’ personnel system came under criticism during  the hearing.

 “Going from MaxHR to a system that essentially says ‘HCOP’ ” — a reference to slang for “police”— may imply a lack of sensitivity on the part of the department, Clarke said.

Out with MaxHR, in with HCOPThe Homeland Security Department has dropped MaxHR, its controversial human resources management system, and offered a new Human Capital Operational Plan (HCOP), which includes employee-friendly features that were not part of MaxHR. Officials said HCOP will focus on five human-resources priorities.
  • Hiring and retaining a talented and diverse workforce.
  • Creating a departmentwide culture of performance.
  • Creating high-quality learning and development programs.
  • Implementing a departmentwide integrated leadership service.
  • Becoming a model of human capital service excellence.

-- Richard W. Walker
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