October 16, 2005
ByDAVID E. ROSENBAUM
WASHINGTON, Oct. 15 - At the Department of Homeland Security, the main government agency responsible for protecting the country against terrorism and responding to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, only 12 percent of the more than 10,000 employees who returned a government questionnaire said they felt strongly that they were "encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things."
Only 3 percent said they were confident that in their department, personnel decisions were "based on merit." Fewer than 18 percent said they felt strongly that they were "held accountable for achieving results." And just 4 percent said they were sure that "creativity and innovation are rewarded."
In each of these instances and many others, the responses of the Homeland Security employees were less favorable than those of all the other departments and large agencies surveyed by the federal Office of Personnel Management, according to a new study by an outside research organization.
Experts in human resources said the morale problems indicated in the survey should be of serious concern to the top officials at the department.
"It shows there is something fundamentally wrong at the organization," said Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
"If you were on the board of directors of a company and you got results like this," Professor Cappelli said, "you would lean on the managers to fix the problem or get rid of them."
The department was created by law in 2002 and was not fully in operation until late 2003. It brought together workers from established agencies with widely varying histories, missions and cultures, including the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service, the Customs Service and the Transportation Security Administration.
Asked about the survey, Russ Knocke, the press secretary for the department, said the morale problems occurred because "the Department of Homeland Security was a merger of 22 agencies, a start-up all at once, and a number of the agencies experienced some growing pains the first couple of years."
"This is a unique circumstance," Mr. Knocke said. "This is not like a business in the private sector or even other departments in the federal government. It's a unique department with a great sense of urgency for fulfilling its responsibility."
The survey was taken by the Office of Personnel Management between August and December 2004. Forms with 88 multiple-choice questions about workers' attitudes toward their jobs were sent to 276,424 federal employees selected at random, and 147,914, including 10,473 from the Department of Homeland Security, returned completed questionnaires. The department employs 180,000 workers.
The purpose of the survey, the personnel office said, was to allow managers to measure "employees' perceptions of whether, and to what extent, conditions characterizing successful organizations are present in their agencies."
In June, the personnel office posted agency-by-agency answers to 78 of the questions, atwww.fhcs2004.opm.gov/published.htm.
This month, Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research institute, published the first comparison of how employee attitudes in various agencies compared with one another on all those questions.
Of 30 cabinet departments and large independent agencies, the employees at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation had the highest morale, Mr. Lilly found.
The morale at the Department of Homeland Security was far worse than that at the agency where the survey showed morale to be next lowest, the Small Business Administration.
In terms of positive answers, by Mr. Lilly's calculations, the department ranked dead last on half the questions.
The department finished in the top half of the 30 departments and agencies on only one question. More than 56 percent strongly agreed with the statement "The work I do is important." That placed Homeland Security employees second only to those at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
On the other hand, in answer to the question "How would you rate the overall quality of work done by your workgroup?" only 22 percent of Homeland Security employees answered "very good."
Only 20 percent strongly agreed that "My work gives me a sense of personal accomplishment."
Only 27 percent strongly agreed that "people I work with cooperate to get their job done," and 13 percent strongly agreed that "my job makes good use of my skills and abilities."
In each of these instances, the department's employees were less positive about their jobs than were workers at any other department or agency in the study.
Mr. Knoke, the Homeland Security spokesman, pointed to the long hours and weekends put in and the dangerous situations faced by many workers in his department, and said, "I really don't think our employees come to work every day and make the sacrifices they make in their personal lives because they're looking for the kind of workplace environment that is necessarily going to be the easiest or the simplest."
But Professor Cappelli of the Wharton School said a poor work environment "rarely drives morale into the floor like this." What usually causes bad morale, he said, are "questions about the overall mission of the organization."
Indeed, fewer than one-quarter of the Homeland Security employees said they knew for sure "how my work relates to the agency's goals and priorities."
Samuel B. Bacharach, a professor at Cornell and the director of the Institute of Workplace Studies there, said that what should be most worrisome to top officials about the employees' attitudes at the Department of Homeland Security was the sense that creativity and initiative were not rewarded.
If these questions were asked of employees at a private company, said Carl E. Van Horn, a professor at Rutgers and director of the university's John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, the executives "would be happy with 85 percent" positive responses.
"If it was only 75 percent," Professor Van Horn said, "they would want improvements."