TSA is entering a new developmental phase, executive says

The Transportation Security Administration is poised to enter a second stage in its development, the Homeland Security Department's top workforce official said on Thursday.

"What it takes to build a 50,000-person agency from zero -- from absolute zero -- is incredibly difficult," Jeff Neal, chief human capital officer at Homeland Security, told Government Executive during an interview. "Being at DHS now, and looking at what they accomplished, I give them a lot of credit. That said, what it takes to operate it long-term, there are differences. … Operating is different from building."

TSA came under scrutiny this week as witnesses at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing urged agency officials to focus on surface transportation and to develop better performance measurements for efforts in that arena.

Neal praised the existing performance management system at TSA, but cautioned that it is difficult to develop metrics that reflect the nuances of security work.

"Some things, just by necessity, are zero-defect requirements," he said. "Satisfactory is no bad guys on an airplane. Unsatisfactory is one bad guy on an airplane. One failure is a disaster."

Stephen Lord, director for homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office, noted during the hearing that TSA is in the process of reviewing an updated set of performance metrics, and said GAO would monitor progress.

Neal said it was important to recognize the hard work TSA employees already are doing, though they are "not highly paid" and don't always have optimal working environments. He said it was important to develop Transportation Security officers' skills further. Now that TSA has had time to build on a strong set of standard operating procedures, he said, there might be more room for innovation.

DHS is prepared for the possibility that TSA workers might choose to unionize, Neal added. "That's not something that we're really afraid of, because we're not going to be bargaining security," he said. "It's going to be how do we operate most efficiently? How do we create a workplace where the folks who are doing this work feel appreciated?"

The American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union have both filed petitions asking the Federal Labor Relations Authority to order an election at the agency. TSA has argued that FLRA must resolve legal issues surrounding its authority over the Transportation Security Administration before such an order could go forward.

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