WASHINGTON – If you’re looking for a pleasant, fulfilling job with the federal government, you best shy away from the Department of Homeland Security.
The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, conducted by the Office of Personnel Management to measure employee perceptions about workplace conditions, designated the DHS as the worst agency and Customs and Immigration Enforcement, a division within the department, as the least desirable spot to hold a job.
The label doesn’t come as a surprise – DHS frequently is cited in the survey as one of the worst places to work within the federal government. Since 2013, the agency’s perception has grown worse.
Joining DHS at the bottom of the scale is the Department of Veterans Affairs, an agency with well-documented problems over the past several months, and the Department of Labor.
On the opposite end, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of State ranked the highest. The 2014 questionnaire received more than 400,000 responses.
“The U.S. federal workforce is the greatest public workforce in the world. Unfortunately, many federal agencies have deep, systemic problems that are hampering employee success, driving away good employees and creating environments where misconduct and mismanagement go unaddressed,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, which conducted a hearing on the survey.
“The vast majority of federal employees are honest, hard-working people who want to be good stewards of American taxpayers’ dollars, but there is great frustration when bad actors are not punished and ongoing issues are never addressed,” Meadows said.
The Department of Homeland Security, established in 2002 in wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to coordinate the nation’s self-defense effort, has been a consistent bottom-feeder almost since its inception. This year it received an overall positive score of 44 percent – its lowest ever. By comparison, NASA got a positive rating of 74 percent.
Meadows noted that DHS scored lowest on leadership, fairness, empowerment and skills to match the mission, suggesting that “not enough has been done” by leadership to improve the situation.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) speculated that low DHS morale can be traced to the Obama administration’s immigration policies, a sore point with Republicans who oppose steps to protect some illegal immigrants from deportation.
“I can tell you every time I go home, and I talk to the women and men who are still in law enforcement, nothing would diminish their morale quite like being asked to do the opposite of what they signed up to do,” Gowdy said.
Catherine Emerson, the chief human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security, said the agency’s workforce is asked to perform “difficult work under challenging circumstances.” DHS employees are charged with protecting the nation’s borders, guiding river traffic, managing shipments at the nation’s ports and checking at airport passengers.
“To create the department that our employees deserve, we must start with our leadership to improve employee morale,” she said. “We have taken concrete steps to provide our senior leaders with the direction and tools to focus on strengthening employee engagement within their workforce. We are also in the process of implementing efforts to address issues identified by our employees.”
Emerson said DHS is working to improve communications with employees, provide information about opportunities for professional advancement, address pay issues and create employee development and training opportunities.
“Building the department our employees deserve is about finding better ways to do business, listening to our employees and building opportunities for them to succeed,” Emerson said. “Secretary (Jeh) Johnson has been a vocal advocate for our employees and has framed his Unity of Effort initiative in part on creating clear expectations for collaboration across the department.”
DHS employees, she said, carry out difficult and often dangerous work that in many cases goes unseen by the American public. “Through our efforts, we hope to enhance the work experience and honor the contributions of our hard-working and dedicated workforce.”
Karl Brooks, a deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, another low-ranking department with a 56 percent positive rating, told the subcommittee that the survey results “confirmed that the EPA’s managers and staff retain the tradition of high expectations for work products and work performance and remain dedicated to offering their best efforts to protect public health and the environment.”
“However, after a careful and thoughtful analysis of the results of the survey, the agency, program and regional offices have developed individually tailored action plans to better equip first-line supervisors to reward excellent work, strengthen our union partnerships, recognize creativity and maintain the agency’s high standards for scientific excellence, public transparency and employee-driven innovation,” he said.
Overall, morale is declining within the federal government, according to the survey. Satisfaction among workers has dropped from 60 percent to the current 56.9 percent. The survey found that about 70 percent of respondents feel promotions are based on favoritism rather than merit. Only 42 percent expressed confidence in their superiors.
In other results, the Department of Housing and Urban Development finished last among mid-sized federal agencies with a positive response of 44 percent while the Nuclear Defense Facilities Safety Board hit bottom for small agencies with 33 percent.
In wake of the report, Meadows announced that he is opening an email “tip line” for federal employees to anonymously air grievances and concerns about workplace operations and conditions. Communications will be used for background on investigations.
“I want to provide an opportunity for whistleblowers within federal agencies to make their concerns known without fear of repercussions,” Meadows said. “From the U.S. Secret Service to the Environmental Protection Agency we have seen gross employee misconduct that has gone unaddressed, contributing to low morale in the federal workplace.”