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The DHS needs a morale boost

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Feb 23, 2015
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The latest skirmish in Congress’s never-ending budget battles comes at the end of this week, when funding for the Department of Homeland Security dries up — unless Congress can agree on a compromise to keep it running. 

But even if Congress acts on the budget, DHS has another huge problem: Morale among DHS employees is dreadful. Every year, the federal government surveys its workers, asking if they’re recognized for good work, if they respect their leaders, and so on.

“DHS does not stack up well,” says Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a good government group that crunches the federal survey numbers and ranks morale at government agencies. 

For the past few years, DHS has come in dead last.

“It is redefining the bottom of the rankings for large agencies,” says Stier.

Stier says part of the problem is the way DHS was created after the September 11 terror attacks. Twenty-two very different federal departments and agencies were merged into one gigantic bureaucracy — but they all kept their congressional overseers. Now, more than 80 committees and subcommittees have jurisdiction over DHS.  

Jeff Neal, who headed the agency’s HR department from 2009 to 2011, says he was constantly writing reports for Congress.

“It didn’t really help us run the department,” he says. “It was very frustrating. We had other things that were more critical than writing reports.”

Now, Congress is causing DHS employees more headaches, and this latest budget skirmish just makes morale worse.

“People are very stressed out,” says Nicole Byram, president of the National Treasury Employees Union chapter in Savannah, Georgia and a Customs and Border protection officer. “People are very anxious. Everyone kind of has this feeling of, oh no. Not again.”

Because they know, if Congress can’t agree on how to keep funding DHS, there’ll be a partial government shutdown. But they’re considered essential, so they’d have to work without pay during the impasse. And getting back pay? That takes an act of Congress — a mood crusher sure to keep DHS at the bottom of the morale rankings.