The Secret Service Scandal and Organizational Development

The recent Secret Service scandal is an interesting organizational development issue from an HR perspective:

“Things like this don’t happen once if they didn’t happen before,” Issa said Sunday on Face the Nation about the incident, in which 11 of its agents were placed on administrative leave amid reports they were involved with a party that allegedly included prostitutes. “Is the whole organization in need of some soul-searching?”

I don’t know for sure. And I don’t know if Issa’s specific statement (that there have been past incidents of Secret Service members cavorting with prostitutes while on foreign assignment) is true. But the general one he is making—that events like this are often the result of a pattern of behavior that is symptomatic of broader organizational problems—couldn’t be more so.

As with the actions that led the General Services Administration to spend more than $800,000 on a training conference, the Secret Service scandal may not be representative of the organization. But both are likely the result of a culture that has developed and unwittingly plays a role in the problem.

In the GSA case, Jeffrey E. Neely was not simply an ambitious manager who drew inspiration from the private sector. And he was not just the organizer of a four-day leadership event that ran way above cost in what appeared to be, at least partially, an effort to one-up the region that planned the last conference. Rather, according to an investigator who interviewed him, he was also an indicator that the GSA needed a “culture change.” People don’t spend $75,000 on a team-building event or more than $136,000 on “dry run” planning trips unless free-spending has become the cultural norm.

Likewise, the Secret Service surely does not condone the sort of behavior alleged to have taken place last week. And it may be rare for the so-called “wheels up parties” that are apparently part of the Secret Service culture to get this out of hand. But somewhere along the way, it’s all too easy for a loosening of standards to give way to a circumstance in which not only immoral behavior but potentially a threat to security can take place.

The leaders of both organizations will have their hands full trying to rebuild the public’s confidence in them, if in very different ways. But they will also need to re-examine the cultural roots of each very different scandal. It will be easy to blame a competitive manager or a few wayward agents under a lot of stress. But most likely, the culture of the organizations of which they were part, and the leaders who led them, also played a role.