There are lots of lists that people and organizations want to see their name on. They’re lists with categories like “Most Successful,” “Most Admired,” “Best Dressed,” and “Best Place to Work.”
Since its inception nearly a decade ago, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has never made any of those lists. In fact, the lists where they do find their name affixed are the very lists on which no one takes pride in seeing their name appear. They are lists with headings that read, “Worst Place to Work,” “Least Job Satisfaction” or “Worst Workplace Morale.” These are, needless to say, the shameful high school superlative categories from Hell.
So why is DHS such a crappy place to work? That’s a question that’s been the subject of a number of Congressional hearings as well as any number of studies and analyses. The answer is as complicated as the department’s creation.
Let’s face facts. The creation of DHS in the months following the 9/11 attacks was not pretty. Any time you forge long established operating components and their unique cultures (e.g., Customs, FEMA, Secret Service, Coast Guard, etc.) together in an almost overnight fashion; give them a next-to-impossible mission (“make sure there are no bad days”); and micromanage and second guess every breath and movement they take (via a ridiculous amount of Congressional oversight); you can’t expect it to be a wonderland. It’s like multiple organ transplant surgeries without ever checking for blood type and donor matches. You wouldn’t normally do it, but if you’re desperate, you might try anything to survive.
In so many ways, the odds were relentlessly stacked against DHS from day one, but day in and day out more than 200,000 employees report to their jobs big and small, some pressure-filled and life-threatening, and others tedious and mundane, to protect us from threats known and unknown.
You can’t really blame the department’s employees for scoring where they work so low. Most of what they do is constantly mocked and derided by politicians, late night comedians and the regular public, who are often anything but appreciative or thankful for what they do. I’m not saying that we should enjoy having to take off our shoes at the airport and get a more revealing (and anonymous) photo taken of ourselves at the airport, or having to fill out another form for disaster assistance or verify our citizenship for employment. All of these things are hassles and certainly debatable in a range of instances, but I’m fairly sure the two words that DHS employees hear the least are “Thank you.”
When you’re not appreciated or for that matter even acknowledged, it’s hard to elevate your morale and self-esteem above subterranean levels. Hence the dreadful poll numbers.
As for the environment in which DHS employees work, it is different from anything I had ever experienced before in either the public or private sectors. [Author’s note: I worked at DHS from 2003-2006.] The department has all of the pressures you might expect when you are trying to mitigate against every conceivable threat and an almost zero tolerance for any type of error or mistake that might happen when you’re on duty. One screw-up can ruin not just the whole day, but many lives as well. Try living and operating in that environment. That’s just one reason for the high turnover rate with employees of all levels.
As to the turnover rate among senior-level employees, it is a concern and recognized as such by the department’s leaders, its overlords (the 88-plus congressional committees with oversight responsibilities) and others. People leave their DHS positions for any number of reasons. They may be fed up with 70- to 80-plus hour weeks, cumbersome bureaucratic fights, and the stress of their job, or they may simply desire to find something far more suitable for their lifestyle and income. Those are all legitimate reasons. In fact they are the exact same reasons that people leave their positions in other public and private sectors all the time. When it happens at DHS it just seems to generate more anxiety and frustration, and for good reason.
We absolutely want to have stability and calm in critical positions every day of the year. Having a steady hand at the wheel when the swells and churn of the sea can roar to life at any instant is reassuring to everyone. When a new hand does take the wheel for whatever reason, we all look in question as to whether or not they are up to the task. What we’ve seen in most cases at DHS is that people have been up to the task and performed fairly well in often less than optimal conditions. No place is perfect, and perfection will never take up permanent residence anywhere in the government, let alone DHS.
One way to possibly address the low morale, and high turnover rates at DHS is what I will call “cross training.” When people take a job at DHS, or for that matter any other place, they often end up being siloed into one division or section for an extended period of time, if not their whole career. For me, that is a recipe for misery and disaster, because you end up only seeing the universe through one corner of the world. How dreadful is that?
If people were encouraged, (and at times pushed) to take on an assignment (and a new challenge) different from what they have done before, it would not only expand their professional skill sets, but further develop new relationships and help mission understanding to grow throughout the department. For example, someone at FEMA might take a year’s detail to ICE or CBP, and vice versa, and get a better understanding of what the other does. Or someone at Infrastructure Protection might go to Customs or TSA to work on vulnerability assessments, or vice versa.
Now it shouldn’t be a universal application to do this type of professional cross training. I certainly don’t think that the Secret Service agents protecting the president should be switched out with Coast Guard personnel operating a drug interdiction operation off the coast of Miami. There are institutional and operational skill sets that need to be applied and not compromised, but to build the “One DHS” that DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and her predecessors have tried to establish, silo-smashing of cultural components and team-building are essential.
Some of this “cross training” is already under way in the upper levels of the department, and it’s starting to permeate to lower levels. It certainly is not an overnight solution to all that ails the department, but it is a longer term tool to build identity, cohesiveness and scalable mission work at all levels.