The not-deep mystery of poor DHS morale

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The Homeland Security Department continues to rank rock bottom among cabinet agencies in terms of employee morale, newly released results from the annual Office of Personnel Management survey of federal employees show.

In fact, DHS ranks low even in most indices of employee confidence, even those that include smaller agencies such as the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation and Railroad Retirement Board.

That employee morale has dogged DHS as a persistent issue since its creation is hardly a secret. The Government Accountability Office has written about it. A House Homeland Security subcommittee has held a hearing on it.

Likely factors include frequent turnover in senior positions, lack of training, and a lack of other agency or private sector experience among senior executive service officials.

The mystery is why DHS can't seem to shake its morale problem. Every new major federal agency typically gets off to a rocky start and gains a reputation in its early years for incompetence and mismanagement. But DHS has been in existence a decade now; its salad years should be over.

A look at particular questions in the OPM survey suggest a possible lack of leadership--DHS employees have lower levels of confidence in those leaders than federal employees as a whole.

But that mostly displaces the question rather than answers it--why hasn't DHS been able to recruit better leaders?

Here the answer graduates into an area the OPM survey doesn't address--the mission itself.

The morale problem in DHS isn't evenly distributed. Transportation Security Administration workers, for example, have particularly low morale, whereas Coast Guard employees have relatively high morale. This isn't a coincidence; frontline TSA workers contribute a lot to the theatrics of airport security but little in proportion to the effort expended to actual security. The Coast Guard, by way of contrast, has a real mission which it's good at executing. Viewed this way, the mystery of morale isn't a deep one. Its resolution, unfortunately, probably requires a greater amount of action by Congress than is possible these days. Next year's OPM survey will bring similar results. - Dave