Issue Briefs

Following are excerpts from a statement by a GAO witness at a recent House hearing on how DHS is responding to its low ratings in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and the related Best Places to Work in Government report.


DHS has worked to strengthen employee engagement through several efforts both at DHS headquarters and within its component agencies. In this statement, we discuss nine recommendations related to DHS employee engagement and workforce planning, eight of which have been implemented by the department.

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Within DHS, the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO) is responsible for implementing policies and programs to recruit, hire, train, and retain DHS’s workforce. As the department-wide unit responsible for human capital issues within DHS, OCHCO also provides guidance and oversight related to morale issues to the DHS components.

Seeking employees’ input and demonstrating progress to adjust human capital approaches.

DHS, OCHCO, and the components have taken action to use employees’ input from the FEVS to inform and implement initiatives targeted at improving employee engagement. For example, in 2017 and 2018 DHS implemented our two recommendations for OCHCO and DHS components to establish metrics of success within their action plans for addressing employee satisfaction problems and to better use these plans to examine the root causes of morale challenges.

DHS components have continued to develop these employee engagement action plans and several components report implementing initiatives to enhance employee engagement. For example, the U.S. Secret Service’s action plan details a sponsorship program for all newly hired and recently relocated employees.

In addition, one division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used FEVS survey data to identify a need for increased engagement between employees and component leadership. ICE’s employee action plan includes goals with milestones, timelines, and metrics to improve this engagement through efforts such as leadership town halls and leadership site visits.

At the headquarters level, DHS and OCHCO have also established employee engagement initiatives across the department. For example, DHS established initiatives for employees and their families that aim to increase awareness and access to support programs, benefits, and resources.

Through another initiative—Human Resources (H.R.) Academy—DHS provides education, training, and career development opportunities to human resource professionals within the department. DHS uses an Employee Engagement Steering Committee to guide and monitor implementation of these DHS-wide employee engagement initiatives. As a result of these steps, among other actions, we have considered this human capital outcome area fully addressed since 2018.

Improving FEVS scores on employee engagement. Since our last High-Risk report in March 2019, DHS has demonstrated additional progress in its employee engagement scores, as measured by the FEVS Employee Engagement Index (EEI). The EEI is one of three indices OPM calculates to synthesize FEVS data. The EEI measures conditions that lead to engaged employees and is comprised of three sub-indices related to employees’ views on leadership, supervisors, and intrinsic work experience.

As a result of continued improvement on DHS’s EEI score, we have moved this outcome rating from partially addressed to mostly addressed based on DHS’s 2019 score. As shown in figure 1, DHS increased its EEI score across 4 consecutive years, from a low of 53 percent in 2015 to 62 percent in 2019. In particular, DHS improved its score by two points between 2018 and 2019 while the government average remained constant over the same period. With its 2019 score, DHS also regained the ground that it lost during an 8-point drop between 2010 and 2015.

While DHS has made progress in improving its scores including moving toward the government average, it remains below the government average on the EEI and on other measures of employee morale. For example, in 2019 DHS remained six points below the government-wide average for the EEI. In addition to the EEI and other indices OPM calculates, the Partnership for Public Service uses FEVS data to produce an index of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government®. The Partnership for Public Service’s analysis of FEVS data indicates low levels of employee satisfaction and commitment for DHS employees relative to other large federal agencies. In 2019, the Partnership for Public Service ranked DHS 17th out of 17 large federal agencies for employee satisfaction and commitment.

Across the department, employee satisfaction scores vary by component. Some DHS components have EEI scores above the government average and rank highly on the Partnership for Public Service’s index. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have EEI scores of 76 and 74, respectively, and rank 85th and 90th, respectively, out of 420 subcomponent agencies on the Partnership for Public Service’s index.

Further, some DHS component agencies have improved their scores in recent years. The U.S. Secret Service raised its EEI score 7 points between 2018 and 2019, and it moved from the last place among all subcomponent agencies on the Partnership for Public Service’s Ranking in 2016 to 360th out of 420 subcomponent agencies in 2019. However, other DHS component agencies continue to rank among the lowest across the federal government in the Partnership for Public Service rankings of employee satisfaction and commitment.

For example, in 2019 out of 420 subcomponent agencies across the federal government, the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office ranked 420th, the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis ranked 406th, and the Transportation Security Administration ranked 398th for employee satisfaction and commitment. As a result, continuing to increase employee engagement and morale remains important to strengthening DHS’s management functions and ability to implement its missions.

DHS employee concerns about senior leadership, among other things, is one area that negatively affects DHS’s overall employee morale scores. In 2015, we identified effective management practices agencies can use to improve employee engagement across the government. One of these practices is the direct involvement of top leadership in organizational improvement efforts. When top leadership clearly and personally leads organizational improvement efforts, it provides an identifiable source for employees to rally around and helps processes stay on course. A DHS analysis of its 2012 FEVS scores indicated DHS low morale issues may persist because of employee concerns about senior leadership and supervisors, among other things, such as whether their talents were being well-used. Within the 2019 FEVS results for both DHS and government wide, leadership remains the lowest of the three sub-indices of the EEI. In addition, for several years DHS components have identified several root causes of engagement scores. For example, in 2019, the Transportation Security Administration identified the performance of managers, time constraints and understaffing, and lack of manager and leadership accountability for change as root causes of the component’s engagement scores in recent years. Another component, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, identified in 2019 that the areas of leadership performance, accountability, transparency, and training and development opportunities were 2018 engagement score root causes.

We have previously reported that DHS’s top leadership, including the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, have demonstrated commitment and support for addressing the department’s management challenges. Continuing to identify and address the root causes of employee engagement scores and addressing the human capital management challenges we have identified in relation to the DHS management high-risk area could help DHS maintain progress in improving employee morale. Implementing our recommendation to review and correct DHS coding of cybersecurity positions and assess the accuracy of position descriptions will assist the department in identifying critical staffing needs.

In addition, as we reported in May 2019, vacancies in top leadership positions could pose a challenge to addressing aspects of DHS’s high-risk area, such as employee morale. There are currently acting officials serving in ten positions requiring Senate confirmation.

Filling vacancies—including top DHS leadership positions and the heads of operational components—with confirmed appointees, as applicable, could help ensure continued leadership commitment across DHS’s mission areas. We will continue to monitor DHS’s progress in strengthening management functions, and may identify additional actions DHS leadership could take to improve employee morale and engagement.

In conclusion, DHS has made notable progress in the area of human capital management, specifically in improving employee engagement and morale, but still falls behind other federal agencies. It is essential for DHS to continue improving employee morale and engagement given their impact on agency performance and the importance of DHS’s missions. Continued senior leadership commitment to employee engagement efforts and filling critical vacancies could assist DHS in these efforts.