This week’s Worst Idea comes from an article appearing in and headlined:  “Can cyber focus, employee emphasis fix DHS?”  Based on the content of this article, the answer would appear to be no.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that a higher level of Employee Engagement (EE) at the Department of Homeland Security wouldn’t be a good thing.  And, Lord knows, if there’s one part of the government in which we should hope to have every employee deeply invested in their work, it’s DHS.  The problem with the article, though, is that it really doesn’t have much of anything to do with EE, at least not in any substantive sense. 

Here are its first two paragraphs:

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he would deliver a better DHS by 2017, highlighting a slate of improvement initiatives in a Feb. 11 speech on the state of the agency.

The secretary emphasized efforts to improve employee engagement—a recent thorn in the side of DHS—and continuing to build on the department’s cybersecurity posture as top goals before a new administration takes office in 2017.

Which certainly sounds sensible enough.  The troubles begin with the next sentence:

“Though our people do extraordinary work, I know we must improve the manner in which the department conducts business,” (Johnson) said.

So the argument would appear to be: 1) We need to improve as a department; 2) EE has been a problem in the past, so we need to do better at that; 3) Let’s give a nod to our people, who do “extraordinary work"; 4) We must get better at how we conduct business.


To be fair, a bit further down in the article Johnson is quoted as saying that “(i)t takes time to turn a 22-component workforce, of 240,000 people, in a different direction... And though the overall results last year were disappointing, we still see signs of improvement. Employee satisfaction improved in a number of components, including at DHS headquarters.”

The implication is that employee engagement is a synonym for employee satisfaction, which is bad enough.  But even if we set that aside, when it comes to specifics, pretty much all that’s discussed are thing like “the latest Einstein system,” which is credited with blocking 700,000 potential cyberattacks in 2015, and something called “the Unity of Effort program, which aims to centralize information and resource sharing across the department’s massive multi-agency framework,” and which, since it 2014 launch, “has been able to streamline many of (DHS’) operations.”

Again, it’s not that blocking hundreds of thousands of cyberattacks and making operations more nimble and efficient are bad things.  That’s obvious.  What’s less obvious, though, is the insidiousness of what can be thought of as Gresham’s Law as Applied to Employee Engagement:  Bad usage of the term EE drives out good usage.

I’m guessing that a conversation something like the following could well have taken place in the run-up to the publication of this article.


Higher-Up: “It’s critical that DHS be more effective in its operations in 2016 and beyond.”

Subordinate 1 “Absolutely correct, chief!”

Subordinate 2:  “Ditto, chief.  But I’ve been reading a lot about this Employee Engagement stuff.  So we need to make sure that we cover that in whatever we’re quoted as saying.”

Higher-Up:  “Excellent catch!"

Subordinate 1:  “I couldn’t agree more!”

Subordinate 2“I’ll get right on it!”

Higher-Up:  “Excellent meeting!”

Subordinates 1 & 2:  “Right you are, chief!  As always!!”


You don’t achieve Employee Engagement by simply slathering the words onto your operating plan and then checking the EE box.  It would appear, alas, that that’s what DHS has done. 

Given that department’s mission, I hope I’m wrong about that.  Boy, do I hope I’m wrong about that.