Our federal government suffers from lack of focus trying to do too many things while doing too many poorly. This behemoth allows for huge waste that gets buried in the apathy bred by the very definition of what happens when you are spending OPM (other people’s money). The GAO (Government Accountability Office) recently released a report about administrative leave in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that boggles the mind. Though the Washington Post covered the story, my inner soul told me as staggering as their report was they still were probably doing an inadequate job. Thus, I dug in to find the real story of how our money is being abused.
The report was written by a team lead by Andrew Von Ah, the acting director of Homeland Security and Justice at the GAO. Mr. Von Ah was surprisingly responsive for a federal government employee. We connected a couple of times allowing me to address some of my insights from the 34-page report. The report focused only on administrative leave for the DHS. Administrative leave is defined as any paid leave that is not sick leave or vacation leave. What alarmed people was that, over the five years of the study (from 2011-2015), 116 DHS employees were on administrative leave for more than a year costing us over $19.8 million. From all appearances the agency did not have discernible consistent controls over how people were put on admin leave nor how long they stayed on leave.
Depending on the department and the length of service, each federal employee receives substantial sick leave and vacation leave every pay period which consists of two weeks or 26 paychecks a year. Each period they get 4 to 8 hours of both sick and vacation leave which accrues. That means some employees are receiving 7.8 weeks of vacation each year.
What I discovered was that there is a program in the federal government called “voluntary leave transfer.” If someone has used up either their sick or vacation leave and needs additional leave for personal or medical emergency, they may receive vacation leave transferred from a fellow employee. That leaves the program open to people manipulating it if they have some expiring vacation leave they can give it to someone else who might swap some back to them at a further time. Fascinating concept.
Though the study did not focus on anything other than admin leave, we do not know how long any federal employees were out for extended periods on other types of leaves. GAO’s study did not cover that. For the entire federal government there were 4,281 people on admin leave for longer than three months during the fiscal years 2011 through 2013. This is about 2% of all federal employees.
Though the Post and other outlets focused on the cost of the 116 employees out for over a year, that is just a portion of the admin leave during the period under study. During the four-year period of 2011 through 2014, there were 443 DHS employees out for 3-6 months, 219 for 6 -12 months, and then the ones over a year. So the amount of $19.8 million spent for employees out for over a year doing nothing and allowed to do nothing is just a portion of the cost, and this is just one department of the federal government.
What Von Ah told me was that there previously was no DHS-wide policy on how to control admin leave within the department. That means that the Secret Service and U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection all had their own rules for admin leave along with the multiple other divisions within DHS. Again -- that is just one department. Another interesting point was that a low level supervisor had the ability to place an employee on admin leave with little review of the process up the line of management.
The reasons for the leave as stated in the report fell into three categories: Misconduct, fitness for duty and security clearance. Of the 116 that were on leave for over a year, 68 were let go and the remainder were either reinstated or in limbo.
These leaves can run into huge costs with one employee being out for over three years at a cost of $455,000 and another at $340,000. This does not include the cost of investigation regarding why they were put on leave in the first place.
The good news is that this system that was running amok without any great concern or accountability is changing. Due to this report now each bureau or division head within the department must approve themselves or through an assignee any admin leave over one month. I would suggest the Secretary of the DHS should personally approve any leave over three months. Congress is looking at legislation that would tighten these rules by statute.
As stated previously, the fact that these leaves go on for so long is because OPM is involved, and that does not mean the Office of Personnel Management. If this were the management’s own dough they would be a lot more forceful. At least for now one department is making progress on one waste issue. Now we need to have a few more.