Years ago, when I led a human factors/behavioral sciences division within a predominately “hard” sciences Department of Homeland Security (DHS) component, I kept the following statement at the top of my whiteboard to remind my colleagues that it wasn’t all gadgets, chemicals, and biology: “It all boils down to people.”
Whether we were trying to predict, deter, or detect those wishing us harm, or we wanted to ensure the greatest effectiveness of technologies employed, as well as their acceptability in the environments in which they were to be used, it all boiled down to understanding people. In fact, we referred to this work as the “harder” science, rather than the pejorative “softer” science label often used by those dismissing this field of study as mere common sense. In reality, understanding people is hard and often very complicated.
One of my “hard” science colleagues, feeling somewhat frisky (though misguided) one day, changed my whiteboard mantra to read: “Boil all the people.”
We enjoyed a collegial chuckle. However, my colleague’s prescient rewording seems to have now become the anthem against federal employees. That anthem is sung not only by detractors in Congress and the media, but more significantly, by those whose mission it is to responsibly lead the federal workforce—a shrinking workforce that spends every day working under rapidly increasing numbers of laws, policies, requirements, and responsibilities within infinitely more complex internal and external political, social, and technological environments and, not insignificantly, reporting to ever-swelling layers of bureaucracy (with correspondingly shorter deadlines) to ensure this nation’s safety, security, and well-being. And much like the female partner in a Tango, it often must be done dancing backward, being dragged on the floor, and avoiding the thorns in the rose. All without missing a step.
The good news is that we have an incredibly dedicated, talented, and resilient federal workforce. The bad news is that in recent years, in many (not all) agencies a principled, experienced, action-oriented leadership with strategic vision has not been there to serve them, and correspondingly, our nation.
And it’s not as if this is a recent finding. The results from the last few years of the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) has reflected decreasing morale in the federal government, with the largest decreases seen for the perceived ability of agency senior leaders to maintain high standards of honesty and integrity. Only half of those surveyed have a high level of respect for their organization’s senior leaders.
Among the lowest rated agencies and components (most notably DHS, where it’s critical to our nation’s security to have the best staff performing at their highest caliber), the numbers are significantly lower. In these organizations, the tone at the top carries into other areas, such as employees’ perceived abilities to do their jobs and being valued for the jobs they do. In practical terms, being valued means good pay and fair access to awards and promotions. More intrinsically, it means respect and trust in their ability to do that job (i.e., the ability to actually work at the level of the position without constant micromanagement).
Unfortunately, as reported in the results of OPM’s recent SES Exit Survey, micromanagement also factored in the decision to leave government by those at the highest level of career government service, Senior Executive Service members. Losing an increasingly large cadre of experienced career government leaders does not bode well for the nation, particularly when the middle management staff do not have the depth of experience or the role models to prepare them for principled leadership in an ever-more complex environment. How have agency political leaders responded to these findings? Frequently, it has been to do internal studies to “better understand the problem.” To no one’s surprise, the results of these follow-on internal studies reinforce the results of the FEVS. The next step is to continue to pay a consultant to do even more data collection and meet with working groups to develop an action plan that is unlikely to be fully implemented before the clock plays out for the current administration.
It is no surprise that very few respondents expect the FEVS results to be used to make a difference. To that end, I agree with DHS Secretary Johnson’s plea to stop talking about low morale. It’s time to act in resolving the core issues stemming from senior political leaders and their closed inner circles. This means not putting people in positions of power with neither the leadership skills nor the requisite specialized background for the jobs. It is a matter of rebuilding trust and fairness, integral to the foundation of an effective organization.
This means addressing the perception that those political and quasi-political leaders at the top have not shared a clear vision with their career leadership, are unable to articulate where employees fit in accomplishing the goals, and more significantly, show preferential treatment in hiring their friends or political colleagues. Is there any wonder that morale is so low? My advice is to set political goals and trust your experienced career leaders and staff to implement them. An occasional bit of well-deserved recognition wouldn’t hurt either.
What does this have to do with security? Very simply, the nation’s security boils down to people—those charged with keeping us safe and the confidence of the nation’s people that their federal government is doing everything possible to ensure their security.