Cause, effect of DHS morale problems tied to leadership vacancies

Friday - 12/13/2013, 4:18am EST

Updated: Added a comment from a White House spokesman. (Dec. 13, 2013, at 5:08 p.m.)

The Homeland Security Department is facing a leadership vacuum.

Nearly 40 percent of all political appointee positions either are vacant or filled by an acting official. Even with the Senate poised to approve Jeh Johnson as the DHS secretary and with the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Wednesday approving the nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas to be deputy secretary, this on-going management problem is causing some to ask if there are bigger challenges that need to be addressed across the department.

Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said the White House's tendency not to fill open spots more quickly sends a bad message to employees and about the importance of homeland security to the nation.

"A recent DHS event thanking an employee on their last day, DHS employees mused, 'Here comes the A-team, the acting team: acting secretary, acting deputy secretary and acting undersecretary,'" McCaul said Thursday during a committee hearing. "Undoubtedly, these vacancies have a negative impact on mission effectiveness and employees' morale."

McCaul said the list of permanent leaders missing in action is long and sad:

  • Customs and Border Protection has not had a Senate-confirmed commissioner during the entire presidency of Barack Obama, and now is on its fourth acting commissioner in five years. The President finally nominated R. Gil Kerlikowske to be CBP commissioner in August. He's waiting for the Senate to act.

  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton stepped down in June. McCaul said he was replaced by a political aide to then-Secretary Janet Napolitano who had no previous law enforcement experience. McCaul said that decision is a "violation of the Homeland Security Act." The White House has not nominated a replacement for Morton.

  • Citizenship and Immigration Services has a director, but Mayorkas will soon become the deputy secretary, leaving another component with an acting leader.

  • The undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis, Carolyn Wagner, left her position almost a year ago. William Tarry has been acting since then.

  • The DHS inspector general had been filled by an acting person, Charles Edwards, for almost three years. Obama nominated John Roth to be the IG in late November.

  • Rand Beers has been the acting secretary of DHS since Sept. 6. This is the third acting role for Beers since he joined the department in 2009.

  • Rafael Borras has been the acting deputy secretary since Sept. 26, leaving his undersecretary for management role to an acting official, Chris Cummiskey.

  • There's also an acting CFO, Chip Fulghum, acting undersecretary of the National Protection and Programs Directorate, Suzanne Spaulding, and undersecretary for Science and Technology, Daniel Gerstein.

This was the committee's second hearing on DHS morale issues in the last two years. It held another session in March 2012 focusing on a need for more leadership.

There are several reasons for the vacancy rate at DHS. The Senate's confirmation process has been slow. The White House hasn't acted quickly to find, vet and nominate candidates to fill those roles. And of course, the turnover rate at DHS has happened at a fast pace.

"We're pleased the Senate is taking action on DHS nominees. They just voted Mr. Mayorkas out of committee and we look forward to additional action. There's a strong team at DHS. Craig Fugate is doing tremendous work at FEMA, John Pistole will continue to do an outstanding job at TSA, and there are five individuals the Senate should confirm without delay: Jeh Johnson, Ali Mayorkas, Gil Kerlikowske to lead CBP, Suzanne Spaulding to lead NPPD, and John Roth to be the Department's Inspector General," said a White House spokesman. "Let's keep this in perspective: out of the confirmed leadership positions, three have yet to be nominated. And you can expect more in the near future."

The Government Accountability Office found in a report released at the hearing that the rate of vacant political appointee positions at DHS has doubled as compared to last year, while the vacancy rate for members of the Senior Executive Service is up to 11 percent from 10 percent during that same time period.

Many causes for low morale

The exact impact of these long-term vacancies on DHS is unclear. Former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, McCaul and others say the lack of sustained and consistent leadership has deeply affected employee morale.

"You simply cannot build nor can you sustain a mission-focused culture with a high number of vacancies and leaders in non-permanent status," Ridge said. "At the end of the day, no organization can function effectively without trusted, respected and consistent leadership. Without it, an organization, as my friend Sen. [Tom] Carper has said, is rudderless. The employees of DHS are on the frontlines protecting our homeland every day. They are accountable. They deserve to have those at the top of their chain of command in place and providing accountable leadership as well."