Employee morale at the Homeland Security Department is starting to improve.
It may not seem that way on the surface, with the agency’s scores under the annual Employee Viewpoint Survey remaining among the lowest in government. DHS received a 51 on the Global Satisfaction index in 2013 — better only than the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Archives and Records Administration.
But the consistent attention from senior officials is starting to change the agency’s culture and improve morale.
“It takes time to build a culture, and the question is, how much time and what’s the right approach?” said Rafael Borras, the undersecretary for management at the Homeland Security Department for the last four years, who recently left DHS to return to the private sector, in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. “Primarily, the issues that are driving down the scores in those organizations tend to be pretty much the same. They are very local issues, issues that affect work groups primarily in the field. DHS has over 80 percent of their people work outside of Washington. People are frustrated over at least the perception that their supervisors are not fair as it relates to hiring or discipline. A constant theme in Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in particular, poor performers are not dealt with. I’d probably say that’s a belief across many, many agencies and cabinet agencies in particular. But it’s acute in those organizations.”
Borras said one of the only ways to change the culture is by listening and solving the problems in the field.
“This is less a sort of a strategic issue than a tactical issue. This is something that has to be done from the ground up,” he said. “You have to address the issues of supervision, the perception of fairness and the allocation of resources as it relates to training and development. All of the federal government has suffered in that area. This is not going to be fixed running around Washington. This really has to be a ground up effort. One other thing that really has to happen is the labor unions, the bargaining units, have to be active participants and not sideline members in addressing this morale issue.”
Borras said the agency’s new senior leaders, Secretary Jeh Johnson and Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, are making the goal of improving morale a high priority.
Data driven changes
And it’s that kind of high-level commitment that’s needed to change what many say is a systemic problem across DHS.
Borras said former Secretary Janet Napolitano and Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute took a strategic approach that helped begin the culture change. Napolitano created an employee engagement committee to get workers involved.
He said the second step has to be the tactical approach and getting into the organizations with the lowest scores, such as FEMA, CBP and ICE.
“I was very impressed particularly with the component organizations that were low ranked really putting a lot of effort in dissecting the data and really spending a lot of time and forcing the organization to understand it,” Borras said. “I can tell you anecdotally, I would hear things like higher-level supervisors would bring in lower-level supervisors and meet with employees, and make sure those more direct supervisors were held accountable for the performance of their work group. You can do that, but you have to do that on a sustained basis to gain the credibility with the employees. The employees are smart enough to know that if they do it one time or see it once, that’s not an effort. That’s a show.”
During his three months as acting deputy secretary and more than three years as undersecretary for management, Borras met with employees in the field and found that many said they didn’t see themselves in the poor scores in the Employee Viewpoint Survey.
“Every time I went out in the field, it didn’t matter where I went, and met with the locals they professed a tremendous amount of coordination and collaboration. And I’m not just talking about the upper chiefs, the admirals or special agents in charge. I went on ships, I went out with the officers and walked the border. They know a lot about what they do, and understand the collaborative nature of the work between, let’s say, at CBP and at ICE,” he said. “It’s really interesting. I think, again, it speaks to a lack of confidence in leadership that they feel that locally they figure out how to work in many ways in spite of us and get the job done. The department’s ability to execute on the ground is tremendous, and they demonstrate that every day. But clearly the messages are very strong, and the department moving forward has to continue a very deep and sustained effort to turn around that perception that leadership isn’t mindful or doesn’t care about what’s happening at that lower level.”
That tactical approach Borras recommended to improve employee morale was what he used to address long-standing programmatic development challenges.
“The idea was to create a place of accountability for the success of the programs and to institute an effort to do a better job of identifying and then developing mitigating strategies and managing to those mitigation strategies the whole question of risk,” he said. “Risk is not a binary issue. It’s not high risk or no risk. There are degrees of risk, and the last four years have been very tough financially. As the financial pressures increase, the tolerance for risk goes down. But that doesn’t mean you don’t take calculated risks. What PARM did was to identify what are the factors that contribute to risk and how do you keep your eye on that.”
These factors are different for all programs, whether technology or construction or logistics.
Borras led an integrated team that included acquisition, technology, human resources, financial management and program experts to create baseline risk assessments. That analysis helps keep the project on track toward success.
“To be able to get that level of nuance and understand the difference of risk in those different types of acquisition programs, that was really key and important. That is what PARM does,” he said.
Borras said several programs have benefited from the PARM process, including CBP’s Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) and the CBP and ICE joint program called TECS.
Thomas Michelli, ICE’s chief information officer, recently told House lawmakers the agency plans on restarting the case management part of TECS after the PARM review showed it was not viable.
“Through PARM and through our acquisition review process, we have forced CBP and ICE to work together. Some of the issues in getting off the mainframe legacy system were more complex than one would be led to believe,” he said. “TECS today is in a better place moving forward, having shed some of the bad strategy of the past. And, this is the real important part of what PARM and the acquisition review process does. It provides documentation as to why we’ve made these decisions and these switches. And that’s what was missing and certainly at DHS, and other government agencies as well, you can’t find the roadmap. Why did you make that change? GAO may not find it a best practice, but at least we are documenting why we were taking certain steps or why we were taking certain risks.”
Borras added DHS can now report back to the Office of Management and Budget or Congress or other oversight bodies as to why decisions were made, which is something it couldn’t do previously.
“The direction I gave to the PARM executive director before I left was to really spend a good amount of the foreseeable future tightening up our protocols for documentation,” he said. “The protocols are for the follow-up to actions in the documentation so that we don’t get caught by missing a step two or three years out as we are trying to pull together the historical record.”
Borras said PARM quickly is becoming institutionalized at DHS. OMB and the Hill have accepted the use of PARM, as both are requiring DHS to use this approach.
“The components often times voluntary go to PARM and ask for help, prior to an acquisition review meeting,” he said.
Borras said he’d encourage the next undersecretary for management to build on existing programs and successes, just like he did from his predecessors.
He said DHS is in a better place across all of the management areas and will continue to improve if the building blocks put in place over the last decade continue to grow.