DHS Employee Morale:

Some Improvements Made, but Additional Actions Needed to Strengthen Employee Engagement

GAO-21-204: Published: Jan 12, 2021. Publicly Released: Jan 12, 2021.

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Chris Currie
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CurrieC@gao.gov

 

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The Department of Homeland Security has had low employee morale and low employee engagement—an employee's sense of purpose and commitment—since it began operations in 2003. Greater employee engagement results in better performance, studies show.

DHS made some progress improving engagement from 2015-2019. However, as of 2019, a federal survey shows that DHS continues to rank lower in engagement than the government-wide average.

We found that holding constructive performance conversations was the strongest driver of employee engagement across DHS.

We recommended ways to improve DHS's efforts to increase employee engagement and more.

Department of Homeland Security Employee Engagement Index Scores Have Been Lower Than Government-wide Scores

Line graph showing government-wide employee engagement index scores are higher than those of DHS from 2010 to 2019.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Chris Currie
(404) 679-1875
CurrieC@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and each of its major components face the same key drivers of employee engagement—as measured by the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (OPM FEVS)—as the rest of the federal government (see table). Higher scores on the OPM FEVS indicate that an agency has the conditions that lead to higher employee engagement, a component of morale.

Key Drivers of Employee Engagement across the Federal Government, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and within Each DHS Component Agency

Fig A_5 bc - 103996

DHS has implemented department-wide employee engagement initiatives, including efforts to support DHS employees and their families. Additionally, DHS's major operational components, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration, among others, have developed annual action plans to improve employee engagement. However, DHS has not issued written guidance on action planning and components do not consistently include key elements in their plans, such as outcome-based performance measures. Establishing required action plan elements through written guidance and monitoring the components to ensure they use measures to assess the results of their actions to adjust, reprioritize, and identify new actions to improve employee engagement would better position DHS to make additional gains in this area. In addition, approval from the DHS Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO) and component leadership for these plans would help ensure department-wide commitment to improving employee engagement.

Why GAO Did This Study

DHS has faced challenges with low employee morale and engagement—an employee's sense of purpose and commitment—since it began operations in 2003. DHS has made some progress in this area, but data from the 2019 OPM FEVS show that DHS continues to rank lowest among similarly-sized federal agencies. GAO has reported that increasing employee engagement can lead to improved agency performance, and it is critical that DHS do so given the importance of its missions.

GAO was asked to review DHS employee morale. This report addresses (1) drivers of employee engagement at DHS and (2) the extent that DHS has initiatives to improve employee engagement and ensures effective engagement action planning. To answer these objectives, GAO used regression analyses of 2019 OPM FEVS data to identify the key drivers of engagement at DHS. GAO also reviewed component employee engagement action plans and met with officials from DHS and component human capital offices as well as unions and employee groups.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making three recommendations. DHS OCHCO should, in its anticipated written guidance, establish the elements required in employee engagement action plans and the approval process for these plans. OCHCO should also monitor components' action planning to ensure they review and assess the results of their actions to improve employee engagement. DHS concurred with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Chris Currie at (404) 679-1875 or CurrieC@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: DHS OCHCO should, through its planned written guidance to components on the employee engagement action planning process, establish the elements required in component engagement action plans, including leveraging information such as their key drivers to identify root causes, setting output-based implementation targets, and setting goals through outcome-based performance measures. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: DHS OCHCO should, through its planned written guidance to components on the employee engagement action planning process, require the approval of OCHCO and the heads of the components to finalize the employee engagement action plans. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: DHS OCHCO should monitor components' implementation of the OPM action planning cycle to ensure the components review and assess the results of their actions to adjust, reprioritize, and identify new actions needed to improve employee engagement. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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