Fast Facts

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.

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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security 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)
Closed - Implemented
We found that as of November 2020, the DHS Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO) had not provided components with written guidance on steps the components should take to develop and document their employee engagement action plans that they submit to OCHCO for review. As a result, we recommended that DHS OCHCO should, through 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. In response, in March 2021, OCHCO issued written guidance for the DHS component employee engagement action planning process that required these elements. As a result, DHS is better positioned to ensure that the components develop action plans that include the root causes of engagement challenges, set output-based implementation targets, and set goals through outcome-based performance measures. This written guidance will also enable components to better plan and prioritize engagement efforts and establish frameworks to monitor progress toward the goals set in the plans.
Department of Homeland Security 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)
Open
We found that as of November 2020, the DHS Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO) had not provided components with written guidance on steps the components should take to develop and document their employee engagement action plans that they submit to OCHCO for review. In addition, according to OCHCO officials, they preferred that the heads of the components review and approve their component's action plans; however, this was not a requirement and did not always occur. According to OCHCO officials, component leadership approval of the action plans is important because offices from across the component frequently are responsible for implementing the action plans, not solely the human capital offices that develop the plans. In addition, it was unclear whether components incorporated OCHCO's feedback because OCHCO did not require components to resubmit the plans to OCHCO for approval prior to finalizing the plans at the component level. As a result, we recommended that DHS OCHCO should, through 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. In response, in March 2021, OCHCO issued written guidance for the DHS component employee engagement action planning process. This guidance requires signature from either the component head or deputy component head on the component's employee engagement action plan. This guidance also establishes a process for OCHCO to review and provide an assessment of the component employee engagement action plans. As part of this process OCHCO may approve, approve with reservations, or not approve the employee engagement action plan. Components may then revise their plan based on OCHCO's assessments to obtain plan approval, but are not required to take this step under the March 2021 guidance. To fully implement this recommendation, DHS will need to demonstrate that OCHCO's reviews of the component employee engagement action plans result in the components developing action plans that incorporate OCHCO's input and obtain OCHCO's approval.
Department of Homeland Security
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
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)
Open
In January 2021, we found that OCHCO did not ensure that components review and assess the results of their actions and then use this information to adjust, reprioritize, and identify new actions needed to improve employee engagement. We also found that with the information collected through the employee engagement steering committee, working group, and annual reviews of component action plans, OCHCO is in a unique position to monitor the implementation and results of the component action planning process and provide feedback to components on any areas where components have not achieved intended goals for employee engagement. As a result, we recommended that 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. In response, in March 2021, OCHCO issued written guidance for the DHS component employee engagement action planning process that includes mechanisms for OCHCO to monitor components implementation of the OPM action planning cycle. Specifically, this guidance establishes a series of checkpoints for components to meet with OCHCO as part of the action planning cycle. The guidance also lists questions that OCHCO will ask in reviewing component employee engagement action planning efforts that discuss the component's process for implementing and evaluating these efforts. In April 2021, OCHCO officials stated that as part of these meetings with components, OCHCO will document component responses and feedback OCHCO provides to the components on their employee engagement action planning efforts. OCHCO officials stated that they plan to use this process to ensure components track and document the results of their employee engagement action planning efforts. To fully implement this recommendation, OCHCO will need to demonstrate that their new monitoring framework ensures that components consistently review and assess the results of their employee engagement action planning efforts and use these assessments to adjust, reprioritize, and identify new actions to improve employee engagement.

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