Homeland Security’s rapid exodus

My colleague at Government Executive magazine, Katherine McIntire Peters, has a good story about the exodus of senior officials in the Homeland Security Department’s upper ranks.

Senior Homeland Security Department employees left their jobs over the past two years at rates significantly higher than the average for other Cabinet-level departments, according to a report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office.

Attrition rates for Homeland Security’s Senior Executive Service positions or those requiring presidential appointment were 14.5 percent in 2005 and 12.8 percent in 2006, the report (GAO-07-758) stated. That’s more than twice the average attrition at all Cabinet-level departments of 7 percent and 6 percent during the same years.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen a procession of stories about leadership woes at DHS, which are intensified by the pending transition of power from the Bush administration to the next president, in January 2009. I wrote about this issue in National Journal last month. Then Congress and the Washington Post noted the preponderance of vacant posts in DHS’ upper echelons.

Katherine’s story on this latest GAO report sheds even more light on the problem. In the past two years, more than half of the senior employees at DHS headquarters in Washington “either resigned or transferred to another department,” she reports. In light of employee satisfaction surveys that put DHS at or near the bottom in most categories, one can imagine that a good number of these employees left not just because they got new jobs, but because they wanted out of DHS. “Executives at headquarters, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency had the highest attrition rates,” Katherine reports. Those three organizations, perhaps more than any others in the department, have suffered from low morale, bad publicity, and frequent turnover at the top.

Turnover was also higher than the government average among career, non-senior DHS employees–8.4 percent in 2005 and 7.1 percent in 2006. The overall average for federal agencies was 4 percent. Most of these numbers were accounted for by security screeners at airports, who make up more than one-third of the total DHS workforce. Factoring them out, DHS’ numbers for non-senior employees’ attrition fell below the federal average. Of course, the fact that there’s so much turnover among the people charged with keeping terrorists and bombs off of airplanes might give overseers some pause.