Sadly Laughable and Laughably Sad: ICE Plans for Improving Employee Morale

By W.D. Reasoner on March 26, 2012

On Thursday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the testimony of the agency's Director for Homeland Security and Justice Issues, David C. Maurer, before the House of Representatives' Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management. The topic was "Preliminary Observations on DHS's Efforts to Improve Employee Morale".

According to GAO, "Over time, federal surveys have consistently found that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees are less satisfied with their jobs than the government-wide average." The disparities vary among DHS components and the questions asked, but the trend is clear.

Mr. Maurer's testimony was based on a standard government-wide survey instrument: the 2011 Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) — "a tool that measures employees' perceptions of whether and to what extent conditions characterizing successful organizations are present in their agency."

As GAO notes, employee morale at DHS is important not only because it is the third-largest cabinet department in the federal government, but also because of the wide range of its component missions — public safety and homeland security throughout the nation.

Not surprisingly, at least from my worm's eye view, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau (ICE) scored among the worst of DHS's components for job satisfaction — in other words, the worst of the worst.

It would be easy to ascribe the low morale to poor pay or stressful working conditions. Easy, but wrong. How do we know? First, from the fact that, statistically, DHS employees meet the overall federal average in pay satisfaction. (Ironically, this is one of the only areas in which DHS employees don't score significantly lower than average federal employees.) Second, there is a sharp contrast between ICE's low employee morale scores and the significantly higher job satisfaction scores at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), even though CBP employees experience similarly stressful working conditions, share a border, customs, and immigration mission, and the fact that the entry-level pay for CBP inspectors and Border Patrol agents is lower than that for ICE special agents and deportation officers.

But it doesn't appear that the leaders at either ICE or DHS headquarters have recognized that disconnect yet, because GAO's report about "progress" provides no comfort. The testimony is a bit subtle, but Mr. Maurer shows that the leaders at ICE and DHS have decided to focus on how to change the answers to the survey so their scores go up rather than addressing problems directly. This is reinforced in the executive summary of the report, which states that "DHS and its components are also taking steps to improve components' positive response rates to selected survey items .... This variation in potential issues that can result in morale problems underscores the importance of looking beyond survey scores to understand the root causes of those problems and developing plans to address them." (emphasis added)

I'm reminded of schools in states with mandatory achievement tests, where teachers teach to the test instead of teaching children to learn.

How sadly laughable of the leaders, and how laughably sad for the rank-and-file officers trapped in this cycle. Dysfunction and self-delusion appear to prevail at the top of the pyramid. How could it be otherwise until the leaders acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, they are the underlying problem. Perhaps they can simply issue a policy memo mandating happiness. Or just require employees to answer positively about everything. Case closed, problem solved!