Quick Facts:
• Amount spent as of August on steel alone for the federal government’s southwest border fence currently under construction to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States: $224 million.

• Miles of pedestrian fencing completed by the Department of Homeland Security for the project as of Dec. 19: 286.

• Actual miles of border the United States shares with Mexico: about 1,950.

Turns out we weren’t the only ones critical of ABC’s newest reality television show, “Homeland Security USA.” Unenthusiastic reviews circulated swiftly on the Web last week amid the show’s Jan. 6 premier (see more reviews here, here, and here).

As it happens, however, the toughest crowd the real Homeland Security USA has to win over might not be television critics who have never worked as law-enforcement officers but rather the department’s own 218,000-plus employees, portrayed in the show by producer Arnold Shapiro as action figures unwavering in their commitment to the war on terror.

On Jan. 8, just two days after the inaugural episode of the show, the Office of Personnel Management released the 2008 Human Capital Survey, which examines the level of job satisfaction among federal employees. As far as staff morale is concerned, the results didn’t bode well for the Department of Homeland Security.

The DHS employees described by Shapiro in an Associated Press interview as “average men and women on the front lines protecting our country from various things illegal and dangerous,” apparently have greater-than-average negative feelings about department higher-ups and each other.

The survey invites federal employees to rate their work and workplace by agreeing or disagreeing with such statements as “I have trust and confidence in my supervisor,” “My work unit is able to recruit people with the right skills,” and “Creativity and innovation are rewarded.”

The Department of Homeland Security outpaced a long list of others in generating negative responses from its nearly 10,000 responding employees. It had one of the highest numbers of respondents who disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “My work gives me a feeling of personal accomplishment.” Ditto for the statement, “I feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.”

Questions regarding the outlook DHS employees had on their agency supervisors also elicited a comparatively higher number of negative responses, including those asking whether senior leaders seemed to exhibit honesty and integrity and whether personnel felt safe blowing the whistle on corruption or law-breaking without fear of reprisal. That’s not surprising considering multiple recent stories in the media about corrupt department employees being charged with crimes related to their work.

The department also faired poorly when employees were asked simply “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?”

A number of employees didn’t believe there were enough opportunities for advancement in the department. More than 45 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “Promotions in my work unit are based on merit.” Nor did they believe agency supervisors did enough to support their need to balance work and family issues (only the Department of Transportation received more negative responses in this area).

When DHS conducted its own internal survey of homeland security employees in 2007, much of the same bad news surfaced. Only a fraction of respondents believed pay raises were based on how well they performed their jobs, 41 percent didn’t think creativity and innovation were rewarded and 53 percent said a high rate of staff turnover made it difficult to get the job done.

Problems with the department’s revolving door continue to be publicized. A project newly unveiled Jan. 7 from the Center for Public Integrity, “Broken Government,” noted that top homeland security officials left their jobs at a rate of 14.5 and 12.8 percent, respectively, in 2005 and 2006. That figure is double the average for similar positions at other cabinet-level departments. Senior staffers frequently use their experience to pull down bigger salaries working in the private sector, as U.S. News &World Report found in 2005.

Further, more than 45 percent of the internal-survey respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve.”

Department managers were quick to cast some of the internal-survey results as positive in public statements. An overwhelming majority of employees said the work they do is important and that they cooperate well with one another to complete tasks – a plus considering turf wars that otherwise poison much of the potential for information-sharing and teamwork in the federal law-enforcement bureaucracy. The department’s same internal survey conducted the following year resulted overall in only 50 percent “favorable” responses, more or less equivalent to 2007.

Grumbling among homeland security personnel is considered to be an ongoing challenge for the federal government’s newest bureaucracy, as it conceded in an annual report to the public released this month. (Detailed results from the latest internal DHS survey aren’t available online just yet.)

An acute staff shortage in some areas had already caused headaches for DHS. Private contractors handle 40 percent of its workload, but the department can’t hire enough federal employees to police the contracts and make sure taxpayers get their money’s worth. Many of the contracts, as a result, are disastrously executed.

A deputy from the watchdog Inspector General’s Office told Congress in September that DHS has hardly half the bare minimum of personnel it needs to properly oversee the contracts, and a significant portion of the people who are there will be eligible for retirement in the next few years. A recent end-of-the-year report from the inspector general found only modest progress has been made in closing the gap since DHS was created in 2003 by absorbing and consolidating a number of federal law-enforcement agencies.

According to the deputy’s testimony:

“Until a fully trained acquisition workforce is developed, it will be difficult to achieve further progress needed for an efficient, effective, and accountable acquisition function.”

It’s doubtful that any inkling of poor employee morale or other negative news such as tales of corruption and mismanagement that have plagued the department since its establishment will ever been seen in ABC’s latest experiment with reality television, “Homeland Security USA.” Producer Shapiro obtained unprecedented access with his cameras to major agencies within the department, but he also reportedly allowed officials to “pre-screen” the show’s run of 13 episodes.

As for the initial reviews last week, some merely laughed off the show’s premise while others were more serious in faulting Shapiro for agreeing to present the department only in a positive light.

In mocking honor of the show’s debut, Hollywood blog Defamer used the department’s overly simplistic, color-coded terror alerts to rate the likelihood viewers would turn to the season premiers of other shows on television instead. “Homeland Security USA” received a “green” or “low” probability that viewers would be interested, falling behind “The Biggest Loser,” “Scrubs,” “Gray Matters” and “Nip/Tuck.” As Defamer put it:

“Yes, we support the troops and pay our taxes, but if this spins off into a show about the real-life workings of the Department of Health and Human Services, we are moving to Edmonton.”

(Sister blog Gawker belittled a TSA employee who approached tears on camera during the first episode as he vowed to “protect my public.”)

The Boston Herald offered a slightly more unique perspective wondering aloud if it’s a good idea to let “millions know the techniques agents use to identify and apprehend suspects.”

Reuters called it mundane and speculated that since some aspects of the department’s activities are by their very nature repetitive – e.g. searching cars and emptying suitcases – the fast-paced camera work and red-alert soundtrack wouldn’t be enough to sustain interest.

Perhaps some stories about border guards aiding Mexican drug runners or accepting bribes would boost the show’s ratings.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.