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DHS morale scrutinized at hearing

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Among the factors cited by participants in a March 22 congressional panel for low employee morale at the Homeland Security Department are frequent turnover in senior positions, lack of training, and a lack of other agency or private sector experience among senior executive service officials.

During a hearing of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight, investigations, and management, committee Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) noted that DHS has had eight human capital officers since 2003, including those who were acting in the position.

DHS has not ranked well in surveys of federal workers conducted by the Office of Personnel Management.

One way of improving the agency would be to convert all management positions into career civil service posts, said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. The  Washington, D.C.-based organization that "connects experts from America's top corporations with federal leaders" ranked DHS as the 31st best place to work in 2011 of 33 large federal agencies.

"Set your policy on a political level, but if you really want to see change it's going to take a long time. You need a long runway," Stier said. He also said that DHS would improve if its SESers would have more experience in working in other organizations, noting that 6 percent of the department's senior ranks came from outside of government and only 12 percent have worked in multiple agencies.

Other factors contributing to low morale include centralization of information technology services and different approaches to paying civilian staff deployed overseas, said David Maurer, director of the Government Accountability Office homeland security and justice team.

Morale improvement can't be improved directly, said Thad Allen, former Coast Guard commandant and now a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. Morale "is rather the natural byproduct of a high-performing organization and its people," he said. His suggestions for improving DHS included better unity of effort among components in operations, planning and coordination, and better long-term budget planning.

Employee satisfaction rankings of the department as a whole mask variable levels of employee satisfaction and organizational maturity within components, Allen and subcommittee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) noted. Organizations that have higher employee satisfaction such as the Coast guard and the Secret Service were moved to DHS "with the mission set intact and their culture and organizational structure in place," Allen said.

Overall, DHS may not be atypical of newly-created federal departments or large agencies, which sometimes have required decades to find solid footing. The Energy Department had similar problems following its creation in the late 1970s as DHS now has in fusing previously separate organizations together, noted Jeff Pon, the chief human resource officer of the Society for Human Resource Management.

"DHS is in its ninth year of evolving as an organization. It's relatively new to the federal government still," Pon told the subcommittee.

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimonies and webcast available)

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