Homeland Security's lousy morale.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 14 2005 5:34 PM

Low Morale at Homeland Security

Only the Small Business Administration has unhappier employees.

The Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit group that monitors the federal workforce, has released a survey ranking government agencies according to employee satisfaction. Guess where the Department of Homeland Security ranks? It's number 29 out of 30. These are the people who are supposed to prevent the next 9/11 and who botched the New Orleans flood. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is folded into Homeland Security, and many people attribute its decline to that fact (though it's worth noting that in a similar survey conducted just before Homeland Security swallowed it up, FEMA ranked dead last). The only agency of the federal government with a more demoralized workforce than Homeland Security is the Small Business Administration, a notorious turkey farm that should have been abolished years ago.

Employee satisfaction isn't the be-all and end-all of excellence. If it were, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which nearly blew up the last space shuttle because of the same problem with insulating foam that blew up the previous one, wouldn't have placed sixth. But if not sufficient to guarantee excellence, decent morale would seem at least necessary as a precondition to success for any enterprise dependent on skilled labor. Yet Homeland Security isn't even as much fun to work for as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the government agency that insures your bank deposits up to $100,000.

Homeland Security ranked 29th in the matching of employee skills to the agency mission, in "teamwork," and in "effective leadership." The only areas in which it did not rank 29th were "training and development" (26th) and "family-friendly culture and benefits" (28th). It gets even more depressing when you look at the raw data for the survey, which was collected by the Office of Personnel Management (the federal government's "human resources" shop). Protecting citizens of the United States against acts of terrorism and natural disasters ought to make you feel pretty good about yourself, no? Yet only 20 percent of Homeland Security respondents strongly agreed with the statement, "My work gives me a feeling of personal accomplishment." That's against 29 percent at the Department of Energy, another federal agency with no particular reason for existing, and 27 percent at the Environmental Protection Agency, which routinely gets bossed around these days by political hacks in the White House.

"Overall, how good a job do you feel is being done by your immediate supervisor/team leader?" At Homeland Security, fully 6 percent ranked their bosses "very poor." Compare that to 4 percent at the General Services Administration, the most boring agency in the federal government (basically, it's the office-supplies and real estate shop).

"How would you rate the overall quality of work done by your workgroup?" At Homeland Security, 29 percent said "very good," compared to 39 percent at the Commerce department, where, excepting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it doesn't much matter whether the overall quality of work is good or bad. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, perpetually one of the worst-managed federal agencies, 34 percent of all employees rate the quality of their workgroup "very good." Indeed, no agency of the federal government scored fewer "very goods" than Homeland Security on this question. Even the Small Business Administration scored a comparatively respectable 38 percent.

You want to know the most depressing thing of all? None of this is news! So many newspaper articles have been written about disorganization and incompetence at the Department of Homeland Security that a Washington Post story on the rankings (page A29) made the White House budget office, which placed first, the story's lead. Homeland Security wasn't mentioned until the story's penultimate paragraph. The people tasked with saving your life hate their jobs? Well, duh!

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.