Borras begins to see the light at the end of DHS' employee morale tunnel

Thursday - 2/20/2014, 3:55am EST

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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."