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The Homeland Security Department headquarters in Washington.
The Homeland Security Department headquarters in Washington. (Susan Walsh / AP)

With the already-low morale at the Department of Homeland Security continuing to fall, Secretary Jeh Johnson is vowing to improve the situation at the 240,000-person agency.

The 13-year-old department, created after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, ranked last among large agencies in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The full results of the survey were released by the Office of Personnel Management this month.

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"I am disappointed but not discouraged," Johnson said. "We will not give up."

The department, which includes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other high-profile units, scored lowest among large agencies in both employee engagement and "global satisfaction" — workers' satisfaction with their pay, their organization, their job, and whether they would recommend their agency as a good place to work.

"DHS has been at the bottom for a long time," said John Salamone, a vice president at the consulting firm Federal Management Partners. "They've got to move the needle and they've got to move the needle in a positive direction."

Johnson said Under Secretary for Management Russ Deyo is "personally leading" a department-wide effort to improve hiring and promotion, communication with workers, and rewarding and recognizing employees.

Officials say Homeland Security is looking to other government agencies and the private sector for ideas.

The agency is exploring ways to provide more opportunities for training to help people advance in their careers. Leaders are also working to make it easier for workers to submit feedback and considering ideas to better recognize employees for good work.

And in recent months, DHS has launched a monthly email to employees in response to requests by employees for better updates from the agency.

Johnson pointed to some bright spots. Results at the Coast Guard, part of the department, were above the government average. And 85 percent of DHS workers said the work they do is important.

But the agency as a whole is far behind the rest of the government. Its engagement index dropped one point since last year, from 54 percent to 53 percent. Global satisfaction fell from 48 percent to 47 percent.

Salamone said the department lags particularly in questions about employees' perception of their leaders.

"They've got to get to the bottom of why employees seem to be so dissatisfied with the leadership of the agency," he said.

Salamone said the department has "a tough mission."

"You have to be successful 100 percent of the time and that puts a lot of pressure on the agency. There's also a lot of scrutiny from Congress."

More than 420,000 federal employees participated in OPM's viewpoint survey this year. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service draws on the data for its annual Best Places To Work report, and high-performing agencies use the partnership's rankings in their recruiting materials.

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The data is also now used as part of senior executives' evaluation.

"They're being held accountable for federal employee satisfaction and commitment," said Mallory Barg Bulman, research director at the Partnership for Public Service. "It's a new push within the administration."

Across the government, the "employee engagement index" edged up, rising 1 percentage point since last year, to 64 percent.

"Although the change may appear to be small, it is in fact statistically significant, and many individual agencies experienced larger gains," acting OPM Director Beth Cobert said.

Similarly, the global satisfaction index for all agencies rose from 59 percent to 60 percent.

The Federal Trade Commission, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Office of Management and Budget tied for most employee engagement among large agencies at 78 percent each. NASA and OMB also scored highest for global satisfaction.

The Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration fared better than the governmentwide scores. Its engagement index was 68 percent, with global satisfaction at 69 percent.

OPM singled out the Department of Housing and Urban Development as an agency that substantially improved its engagement. Global satisfaction rose from 51 percent to 57 percent, while engagement increased from 57 percent to 62 percent.

The response rate for the survey also jumped from 51 percent to 74 percent.

"Those are huge numbers," Salamone said. "If I were at Homeland Security, I would be over at HUD trying to figure out what they did."

OPM officials say HUD emphasized employee feedback and communication. For instance, an internal social media platform called HUDConnect lets employees recommend new technologies and submit other suggestions. In addition, HUD began regular emails to workers and quarterly town hall meetings.

Across the agencies, IT specialists' responses to survey questions have raised concerns. These workers had more negative responses questions on recruitment, retention and development than workers in other fields.

A report by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton earlier this year concluded that the government has failed to attract and retain top cybersecurity talent.

In a rapidly developing field, Bulman said, workers want training opportunities, and many development programs have suffered because of budget cuts. Pay is also a factor with many who leave, she said.

"After a couple of years, they're really lured away by the private sector," where pay is much higher, she said.

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