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Morale Problems Persist at DHS

Employees at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continue to suffer from the worst levels of employee morale, on average, when compared to the rest of the federal government, according toa report released by the Government Accountability Office(GAO) on Wednesday.

“DHS employees have lower average levels of job satisfaction and engagement overall and across most demographic groups available for comparison, such as pay grade, when compared with the average for the rest of the federal government,” the GAO’s analysis of theFederal Employee Viewpoint Survey(FEVS), which records how employees feel about their workplaces.

Within the report, the GAO defines morale as a combination of job satisfaction, the level of personal accomplishment employees feel doing their work, and employee engagement, the willingness of employees to expend extra energy in improving their performance. According to the GAO, the non-DHS government employee average for job satisfaction and employee engagement was 68.5 and 67.1, respectively. Inside DHS, however, the averages were 64 and 60.1, respectively.

The results worry the GAO because low morale creates performance problems at DHS, the third largest cabinet level department within the federal government.

“Given the critical nature of DHS’s mission to protect the security and economy of our nation,” the report states, “it is important that DHS employees are satisfied with their jobs so that DHS can retain and attract the talent required to complete its work.”

The department’s workforce has repeatedly reported low morale since it began operating in 2003, while the ranking system known asThe Best Places to Work in the Federal Government regularly finds DHS as one of the worst places to earn your daily bread. In 2011, DHS ranked 31 out of 33.

The GAO report provided a granular look at where the morale problems reside within the massive department, which consists of more than 200,000 employees.  

Dramatic variance in job satisfaction and employee engagement also occurred between DHS components. Job satisfaction ranged from 56.9 to 71.6 while employee engagement ranged from 53.2 to 70.6.

The components with the worst combined scores, in descending order, were Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Science and Technology Directorate, Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A), and Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The top four in descending order were the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Inspector General, Coast Guard, and Customs and Border Protection.

The GAO also discovered that differences in morale varied greatly between employees who came from preexisting components integrated into DHS when it was stood up, such as the Coast Guard, and those working for components created with the department or subsequently, like I&A and TSA.

Another variance in morale occurred between employee groups, particularly management and the rest of the DHS workforce. Both DHS managers’ job satisfaction and engagement scores were approximately nine points higher, on average, than DHS employees not considered management.

The task of managing such a large amount of human capital has proven daunting for the department and remains one of the reasons why the GAO continues to describeDHS as a high risk of fraud, waste, and abuse to the American taxpayer. The watchdog agency describes DHS’sefforts at successfully managing its workforce--which was either integrated from previously existing departments or created anew when DHS was stood up--as “enormous and complex.”

DHS, according to the GAO, has also began to determine the root causes of employee dissatisfaction by holding focus groups, conducting exit surveys, and regularly analyzing FEVS results.

Exit surveys initiated in 2011 by DHS, according to the report, discovered that the two main reasons for leaving DHS was lack of quality supervision and lack of opportunities for advancement.

To get a better grapple on employee morale issues at DHS, the GAO recommends Secretary Janet Napolitano direct components to dig deep into root cause analyses of employee morale and, where necessary, compare results according to demographic groups, benchmark results against other federal departments, and ensure root causes are linked to action plans for improving employee morale. The GAO also recommended that action plans come with clear and measurable metrics of success.

DHS agreed with the recommendations, although it said its ability to conduct demographic analysis was limited by the data sets made available to it by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). OPM disagreed with that assessment.