Employee Morale Problems Are an Epidemic at Department of Homeland Security

Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Americans were left feeling frightened and vulnerable. With nearly 3,000 lives lost, the shocking assault on our nation was the most devastating enemy attack in U.S. history, and made it clear that we were facing new and unparalleled threats. Americans looked to then President George W. Bush and his administration for a way to safeguard our nation against future attacks and restore confidence in domestic security. What resulted is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was created in 2002 by merging 22 agencies from across the government into one unified, integrated federal department. Its mission was simple – protect America from a myriad of threats faced as we entered a new millennium. But now, more than 15 years later, the department is attracting attention for an entirely different reason: its wasteful spending of tax dollars and stunningly low employee morale.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post published an exposé that described how the DHS commissioned four separate studies over the course of three years, all to examine the same problem: why employee morale at the department was ranked the lowest of any large government agency. The first study commissioned by the agency and completed in 2013 seemed like a promising impetus for improvement; a committee of eleven experts visited dozens of DHS offices throughout the nation and produced a 268 page report recommending changes, such as increased involvement of senior officials and fostering an atmosphere more receptive to innovation and new ideas. However, virtually no measurable action was taken following the release of the report. Said one DHS employee, who spoke anonymously to the Post, “It was not a very good light to shine on any of us, so we just hid it.” Another high-ranking DHS official, deputy secretary Rafael Borras, lamented that he’s “never seen it, never heard of it, didn’t know they were doing it.” And while DHS officials promised a congressional committee that a five-year improvement plan would be presented by May 2014, nearly a year later, a recent copy obtained by the Post is little more than a draft, with large sections still incomplete. [See DHS Tackles Endless Morale Problems with Seemingly Endless Studies, by Jerry Markon, The Washington Post, 20.Feb.2015.]

Since the original study was commissioned, the DHS has contracted three more studies with different consulting companies to examine low employee morale, bringing the total amount spent on the project to over $2 million. The additional studies have resulted only in short drafts of reports that have never been formally presented to senior department officials. Meanwhile, overall employee satisfaction at DHS dropped from 46.8 percent in 2013 to 44 percent in 2014, the largest decrease among government agencies. Employees cite a lack of strong leadership and a frustrating bureaucracy as chief among their complaints, and the high turnover rate in the agency, especially in top leadership positions, only serves to exacerbate the problem. And while DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson promised a Senate committee shortly after he took office in 2013 that “he will inject a new energy into the department,” the Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, recently reported that the DHS “has consistently scored lower than the government-wide average on the…Leadership and Knowledge Management index, which indicates the extent to which employees hold their leadership in high regard.” [See DHS Continues to Study, Suffer from Morale Problems, by Anthony Kimery, Homeland Security Today, Feb.23.2015]

Low morale among employees of the Department of Homeland Security is not only a threat to the safety of our nation, but also to the cultural diversity that has helped make the United States such a powerful force on the global stage. It certainly does not help matters that, Congress was unable to reach an agreement to fund the DHS before last Friday’s deadline. While Republicans and Democrats use the DHS budget as a political football, employees are expected to report for work, but will not be paid until a budget for the agency is agreed upon. Most of the key immigration-related agencies, including the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), are part of the DHS. [NOTE: The House of Representatives approved a measure late in the day on March 3, 2015, that will fund the DHS through the fiscal year. The bill may now go to the President for his signature.] In addition to risking the safety of U.S. citizens at home, allowing these agencies to be compromised could have potentially devastating consequences for millions of immigrants who live and work in the United States and contribute their talents, education, and experience to our cultural and economic landscape. The DHS must commit to implementing changes throughout the department to address employee dissatisfaction before the nation’s security, as well as its diversity, is put in jeopardy.


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