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Why is DHS a Crappy Place to Work? – Part 3

The personnel system, the pay, and the confirmation process

There are always jobs to be done, but finding the right people to do them is often a challenge. Some positions require enormous amounts of training and skill. Others may only require some basic professional skills. There’s an incredible range of capabilities needed when you have a department and mission as big as the Department of Homeland Security’s. While there may be more than 200,000 people it employs to serve a singular homeland protection mission, they are not all doing the same thing day in and day out.

Finding those people is an everyday challenge, and it’s not an easy one. Fortunately for the department, many of its legacy components – the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, and a few others have well-established systems by which they recruit, screen, hire, and train their personnel before they are put into any active service. Let’s face facts – its good for everyone that no one can just show up on day one of their job at DHS and guard the president, screen incoming cargo and foreign travelling passengers, patrol the border, or monitor maritime traffic along the coastline. Those jobs (and others) go to those who have been thoroughly trained and are ready for them, and the truth is, not everyone who is part of those legacy components gets to do those jobs.

The department is truly fortunate to have these legacy systems that help them put the right people with the right skills in the right spots. Components such as FLETC (the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center) and other training centers do an amazing job preparing a wide variety of men and women for some very intense (and often dangerous) assignments. That training does not end when they graduate from the respective academies. It is a career-long trek to keep each person up to speed on the latest techniques, equipment, procedures and so forth. This is where DHS is in pretty good shape in terms of its personnel system, but when it comes to the rest of the department, it is very much a work in progress.

Since its start, DHS has had several Chief Human Capital Officers. When it’s hard to keep that post filled because people keep leaving it (for a variety of reasons), it’s hard to keep any measure of consistency and forward movement when it comes to leading the department’s personnel system. Furthermore, the early efforts to make DHS a model for improved hiring end employment practices within the federal government have all fallen dramatically short. Every time a new hiring or personnel system was proposed, leaders from the various federal employee unions (e.g., National Treasury Employees Union, American Federation of Government Employees, etc.) would file lawsuits or pull strings in Congress to get it scuttled.

Even efforts to improve federal employees compensation through pay-banding and other salary measures would fall apart, leaving federal employees stuck with the long outmoded pay scale system that had governed their lives since probably the Civil War. (OK … maybe not that long, but you get the point.) For a department that was built with flexibility in mind so that it could get people hired, promoted, and if necessary fired for poor performance, DHS has found itself calcified and unable to forge the personnel system it needs and deserves. Those challenges only compound when you try to merge all of the hiring systems that it inherited when 22 separate parts became one department in 2003.

Since the creation of DHS, the conditions for confirmed positions have only gotten worse, as a number of highly qualified and more than distinguished individuals have brushed off invitations or walked away from leading some of the department’s most important components. Their reasons are all unique and personal, but the one thing you hear the most from these people is, “I’m not going to put myself or my family through a confirmation process. It’s not worth it.”

In terms of bringing new talent into DHS, the department’s existing hiring system remains a cumbersome, long, drawn out process that often leaves its applicants confused, frustrated, and moving on before a position can be permanently filled.

There are always plenty of people willing to serve their country in many ways, but when your government cannot operate the most basic of systems in an easy, transparent and expeditious manner, you can easily decide to move on and serve in another way. That has happened with a number of persons I know who have applied to DHS for senior as well as mid-level positions. I guess if you have the patience of Job and are willing to put everything else on hold in your life until you hear something, you might have a chance, but most people I know are anxious to do something other than wait for someone to call with an opportunity. They will find it through other outlets.

Interestingly it is DHS’ own top boss that I think exposed the inherent weaknesses of the department’s personnel system. Recognizing the limitations that she had to work with in bringing new personnel into the department to support its increasing cybersecurity mission, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano sought and acquired special authorities to allow her to hire 1,000 new cyber security personnel. Due to the higher salaries that the private sector and others can provide, plus her own cumbersome personnel system, she’s sadly fallen short in filling these mission essential seats. This is one area where we don’t want DHS falling short in having the right talent in the right spots. To fill the personnel and talent gap, DHS has had to utilize talent from the National Security Agency (NSA) to fulfill its operational responsibilities for cyber security.

In terms of compensation, DHS, like its federal brethren, is subject to an ongoing pay freeze, meaning that salaries are not going to go up either. Nothing can be a bigger blow to one’s esteem than not being fairly and regularly compensated for your service, but on the eve of drastic budget cuts through sequestration, there’s little hope for improvement. For those DHS personnel with in-demand talents in the private sector (notably cybersecurity skills), the options and opportunities for better compensation (and at times working conditions) are more than plentiful. That leaves almost continuous vacancies in mission-critical areas that need to have the best and brightest at work.

One other area of challenge for DHS leaders is the confirmation process for its executive leadership. Given DHS’ size, it has more than a few Senate-confirmed executive positions. That means that before an executive nominee of the president can begin doing the job the administration wants them to do, their appointment has to go through what can only be called an atomic meat grinder before they can take office. Nominees for these positions not only have to open up their entire lives from childhood to the present (e.g., personal background, education, finances, etc.) to Senators and their staffs for inspection and wire-brush review, but realize that any potential mistake or action taken in their lives could be completely blown out of proportion, while they are unable to aggressively defend themselves in the process.

Furthermore, nominees may find their nomination placed on a perpetual “hold” due to a question not being answered the way a particular Senator likes; or because a Senator just doesn’t want that person to take that position; or just because of the politics of that particular day of the week. There doesn’t have to be a good reason for a hold: Someone with the right authorities can put the organization’s leadership and nominee’s life on “hold” until at some point it is lifted or overruled through arcane Senate procedures. As a result, the professional life of the nominee as well as the entity that they have been nominated to serve are caught up in a purgatory of sorts that has them going absolutely nowhere.

DHS has seen these types of hold conditions for executive positions at FEMA, the Management Directorate, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, and more. It’s hard enough to find exceptional people willing to take positions that are already stress-filled, increasingly demanding and habitually undercompensated, without subjecting them to further obsessive privacy invasion and petty politics.

Since the creation of DHS, the conditions for confirmed positions have only gotten worse, as a number of highly qualified and more than distinguished individuals have brushed off invitations or walked away from leading some of the department’s most important components. Their reasons are all unique and personal, but the one thing you hear the most from these people is, “I’m not going to put myself or my family through a confirmation process. It’s not worth it.”

Those are not the words anyone in this nation needs to hear, not when there is so much of a need for talent, at all levels, to secure the homeland. There are essential and appropriate questions and oversight roles for Congress and the confirmation process, but when they become the obstacles to the best and brightest serving, you have to wonder whose interests are being served.

That makes challenging circumstances even more challenging.

Part One – Working in a sometimes thankless job

Part Two – Political appointees and the department

Part Four – Clearances, confidence, respect & trust


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-39809">

    The tone and words of your comments about the reactions to some (all?) of the supposed personnel system improvements that were poised for implementation in DHS in the Bush Administration, or which were actually implemented for a time, carry with them the impression that you believed that the proposed or adopted personnel systems were necessarily improvements over their predecessors or, in the absence of a real predecessor, good in their own right. I can tell you that, if those are your beliefs, then you are sadly mistaken. For example, under one of the several employee performance evaluation systems with which we have been victimized, I was required to show my personal performance objectives as being EXACTLY the same as those of the Undersecretary for whom I worked (at several levels of remove, mind you). When I observed that his job was different than mine and that his objectives made no sense in light of either my position description or the projects I was working on, I was told that my position description and the projects I was working on were unrelated to my performance objectives. The performance objectives I had drafted, objectives that actually made sense given what I was doing, were disapproved and I had to replace them with the Undersecretary’s performance objectives, just scaled down to reflect my more limited span of control. And, in case you were wondering, this brain-dead approach to performance management was foisted on us under the Bush Administration. There are plenty of dumb things still being done in DHS but the general level of brain-death in the Obama Administration is lower (i.e., things are marginally better) than it was under the Bush Administration.