The fledgling Transportation Security Administration enters its awkward adolescence poised to reshape the civil service.
One morning in late January, I arrived early for a tour of the Transportation Security Administration's facilities at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Waiting by a security checkpoint for my contacts, I watched a group of TSA employees on break. Clad in their distinctive maroon sweaters, they sipped coffee and checked out the teddy bears on display for Valentine's Day outside the terminal's Godiva shop.
My contacts arrived, including Stephanie Carter Naar, one of TSA's new behavior detection officers who monitor passengers for suspicious and erratic behavior. I mentioned the transportation security officers I'd noticed earlier, and she confirmed that, even on break, they keep a close eye on the area: "Once a behavior detection officer, always a behavior detection officer."
TSA has come a long way since November 2001, when the agency first grappled with federalizing an entire public sector profession. But enormous challenges remain, including creating a career track for a more professional workforce, integrating the best practices of business into government culture, and meeting the public demand for safety and service.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress could have decided to heavily regulate the private companies that screened air travelers. Instead, lawmakers went in a radically different direction; they made airport security a federal function.
The ultimate decision "had to do less with who could have done the job most effectively, and much more on the question of politics and the psychology of the issue," says Donald F. Kettl, director of the Fels Institute of Government and Robert A. Fox Leadership professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Stephen J. McHale, who served as TSA's first deputy administrator and is now a partner at Patton Boggs law firm in Washington, agrees that public pressure was on the side of federalizing the agency's workforce, but argues it made sense. "I think it does enable greater consistency and a more immediate response," he says. "If you need a surge of security at an airport, it's easy to do that."
The failure of private contractors and government oversight to avert the Sept. 11 attacks also drove public support for federalization, says former Transportation secretary Norman Y. Mineta, who oversaw TSA's creation. "The airlines, generally on a bid basis, awarded to the lowest bidder the responsibility for doing their security at the airports, and so there was really no uniformity among the providers of that service to the airlines," says Mineta, now vice chairman at Hill & Knowlton public relations firm. "I'm not really sure how good our [government] oversight of that process was." While Mineta criticized the performance of the private companies and federal oversight, he says it was collaboration between volunteer executives from industry and government employees that allowed TSA to redesign its aviation security system to achieve a balance between rigorous inspections and customer service. For instance, executives from Disney helped the agency figure out how to herd 2 million passengers through lines each day, while the top brass from Marriott Hotels and Resorts shared customer-service best practices. Headhunter Korn/Ferry International helped the agency recruit federal security directors to coordinate operations at each of the nation's airports.
"It was really, really heartening for me, from a crow's nest perspective, watching this engagement going on between the private sector people and the bureaucrats," Mineta says.
But that collaboration didn't reduce the huge tasks TSA's first employees faced. The decision to federalize the security workforce may have reassured the flying public, but those same passengers demanded immediate results. "I came up with the analogy of trying to fly the plane while we're building it," said James P. Mitchell, head of TSA's first communications department and now director of communications at the Office of Special Counsel.
The creation of TSA meant screeners would be federal employees in name. But the agency's architects wanted to transform the airport security profession further, eliminating its high turnover and sense that the jobs were dead-end or temporary-perceptions that haunted the field under private sector control. The founders wanted people to view TSA as another path toward a life of federal service. To do that, they again turned to business principles to build a career trajectory, implement a pay-for-performance system and discourage collective bargaining. "The Homeland Security Department, and TSA in particular, is on the front lines of the battle to reshape the civil service," says Kettl. "The shape of that is still unclear."
The agency's attempts to create a promotion track within TSA and within DHS to retain employees are a prime example of how TSA and its critics can agree in principle, but not in practice. "We looked at a master ability of screening, someone who could provide some training and ways for people to move into supervisory roles. We've got a couple of federal security directors who were front-line screeners," says McHale of the agency's infancy.
Gale Rossides, TSA's deputy administrator, says that early idea remains a critical focus. "All the workforce initiatives that we've worked on in the last year have been designed to provide career opportunities and progression, and make the entry-level job as a transportation security officer the entry level for a career in TSA and the larger DHS," she says. That approach led to the creation of behavior detection officers, bomb appraisal officers and more highly trained supervisors.
Rossides says those efforts to carve out a career path for transportation security officers within DHS are starting to bear fruit. She points to the TSOs-some of whom have gone on to work as aviation inspectors, federal air marshals, and at Customs and Border Protection-as examples she hopes will convince TSA employees to remain and develop their skills within the agency. She also says the creation of an interim pay band, the E-band, makes it easier for TSA employees to advance and receive raises while honing skills that will earn them promotions within, or outside, the agency.
But John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which is organizing TSA locals, says promotion options within the agency are too limited. "They only have two jobs they can get promoted into, and that is within TSA, and that's basically a supervisor or a lead [screener]," Gage says. "We haven't seen any career branches into law enforcement, or the DHS, set up for these people."
The agency's critics, including Gage, say the Performance and Accountability Standards System that TSA uses to evaluate job performance and determine promotions and raises is unclear and counterproductive. "It is [a system] that employees do not see at all as laying out clear criteria for them; there are allegations of favoritism and cronyism, and there is no meaningful way for employees to challenge their ratings," says Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents some TSA employees. "They see the system as arbitrary."
AFGE's Gage says the employee testing process is flawed, citing the use of different screens for training and daily operations, which could create inconsistencies in examining baggage. In addition, he says workers have complained about a lack of feedback from supervisors on written and pat-down testing. He also mentioned some employee reports of airports so short-handed that management did not schedule tests because the training would take workers off the job. But according to those same reports, employees who were not tested received lower ratings and raises.
Last fall, TSA announced changes to PASS that would increase the number of categories for rating employees from four to five and award salary increases and bonuses to employees rated in the top three categories. "We think we have a very strong system, and we've developed it in collaboration with our workforce," says Ellen Howe, TSA's assistant director for strategic communications. But Gage says management, not the rank-and-file, has veto power over such decisions, rendering the collaborative process meaningless.
Both Gage and Kelley say granting collective bargaining rights to TSA employees would provide a better mechanism for addressing questions like performance evaluations and scheduling. The current agency model gives each airport's federal security director wide discretion to hire TSA employees and to set their schedules, which the agency says is an improvement. "Last year, we went to a local hiring model, which decentralized the hiring process from a national contract to the local officials doing the hiring. They know where to go for the candidates, and we're getting a better product," says Christopher White, a TSA spokesman.
That decentralization has gone too far, though, says Gage, especially after TSA employees start work. "Each airport is really kind of flying by the seat of its pants when it comes to personnel systems and how they run the screeners at their airports," he says. "Training is madly inconsistent."
There's some debate between the agency and its unions on whether the current system of performance evaluation has reduced attrition. McHale, the first TSA deputy administrator, says the private sector attrition rates among the pre-Sept. 11 workforce were astronomical-anywhere from 40 percent to 400 percent, depending on the company.
"[Private companies were] just constantly hiring, constantly training and you're not going to get the quality that you need [under those circumstances]. Early on we said if we can get to 25 percent, that would be a good thing [and] would be a significant improvement," McHale says.
In fiscal 2006 and 2007, the agency met that goal, with attrition at 20 percent of the workforce. Rossides says that figure means TSA is doing about as well as comparable private sector companies. "The Department of Labor statistics show that in the transportation industry in the private sector, the attrition rate is over 19 percent," she says.
But NTEU's Kelley says benchmarking against the private sector misses the point, and TSA attrition rates are still too high. "The only one that provides a constant frame of reference is turnover in the federal government in general, which is anywhere from 4 percent to 7 percent," she says.
No matter where they stand on how to manage TSA, all stakeholders agree that the agency's mission is monumental, and the public's fears about terrorism and its expectations of safety have not disappeared. "No one layer is completely invulnerable," says TSA's White. "In conjoining 20 layers, you get a robust security system."
Adds the University of Pennsylvania's Kettl, "You have a [security] system where the only thing that's acceptable is 100 percent accuracy 100 percent of the time, when that's a technological impossibility. The terrorists are always going to probe the system and find places we're not looking."
Also, the public's expectations of security tend to clash with its demands for comfortable and convenient travel. And according to McHale, there are limits to what the agency can reasonably accomplish given the scope of the transportation system and Americans' preference for privacy.
"You could, just with the screeners themselves, have a very high level of detecting, but I don't know that anyone's prepared to put up with what that would necessarily involve," McHale says. "It would involve an intrusive, pat-down search. . . . It's very hard to keep up morale when the people who are doing their job are doing it to the best that they can and are constantly being attacked for not detecting things that, with the tools they've got, they just aren't able to detect."