TSA’s attempts to solve workplace problems could be making matters worse

The Transportation Security Administration deserves credit for trying to create alternative methods for resolving employee concerns, but the Homeland Security Department's inspector general said in a critical report released on Tuesday that those programs could be backfiring and contributing to morale problems.

TSA has tried to reduce high employee turnover rates it inherited from private industry when it took over airport screening functions and has struggled to set up a strong performance management system. Unions have argued that TSA screeners need more time for training and more transparency in the evaluations process. "By not successfully addressing such long-standing workplace issues, these proactive programs may provide false hope and have the unanticipated effects of heightening employee dissatisfaction and further undermining morale," Inspector General Richard Skinner wrote. "Given their frustration, employees may be distracted and less focused on their security and screening responsibilities. These factors could in turn adversely affect TSA's overall transportation security mission by increasing turnover and decreasing workforce stability."

TSA reacted sharply to the report, arguing that it misinterpreted the unique nature of the agency's dispute resolution programs.

"The [Office of Inspector General] report has failed to recognize the scale, depth and leading-edge quality of what TSA has undertaken: becoming a model that other agencies are benchmarking, providing multiple places and ways that individuals can raise and obtain assistance in resolving concerns, and making considerable progress in laying the foundation for the maturation of the system," TSA Administrator Kip Hawley wrote in an agency response to the IG's findings.

But employee groups said the report was a long-overdue wakeup call.

"This report, in its heartbreaking entirety, sums up the nightmare that has served to be the day-to-day workplace experience for most of TSA's federal airport screening inspector workforce," American Federation of Government Employees TSA Local 1 spokesman A.J. Castilla wrote in a message to other agency employees.

National Treasury Employees Union president Colleen Kelley said the report illustrated the need to grant transportation security officers collective bargaining rights.

The report examined TSA's Office of the Ombudsman, the Integrated Conflict Management System and the National Advisory Council, which provides employee input on things like performance evaluations and the pay system, saying all three programs were implemented inconsistently, with limited employee awareness and access. The ombudsman and the Integrated Conflict Management System received particular criticism.

One-third of TSA employees surveyed said they were unaware of the ombudsman's role, and two-thirds said the ombudsman's office was ineffective in communicating information about its functions. The ombudsman is supposed to provide a confidential forum for employee complaints and be available to employees during regular visits to airports. Of employees who had sought the ombudsman's help in resolving a dispute, two-thirds said they were dissatisfied with the service they received and the ultimate outcome. More than half said they would recommend that their colleagues go elsewhere for help.

The report said employees were discouraged from turning to the ombudsman in the first place.

"At every airport we visited, and also within TSA headquarters, management regularly stressed that an employee's chain of command was the preferred first option for pursuing resolution of a workplace problem, issue or concern," the report said. "Employees we interviewed said that managers discouraged them from consulting the ombudsman during airport site visits. Other employees believed local management was aware of employee communications with visitors and feared repercussions if they contacted the ombudsman with their concerns."

The IG also noted that the chain of command hampered the ombudsman's ability to perform. Rather than reporting to the agency head, the ombudsman reports to the Office of Special Counselor, which ended site visits in July 2007 rather than letting the ombudsman continue to the end of the year.

Hawley said it was appropriate for the ombudsman to report to the special counselor because the ombudsman was supposed to resolve disputes informally, rather than handle formal grievances.

"That very informality is a strength that the ombudsman uses effectively and is not diminished by its location in the TSA structure," Hawley wrote. "TSA uses an organizational ombudsman model, which is consistent with how other federal ombudsman offices operate, and evidence was not set forth in the OIG report to convince TSA that a different ombudsman model would be more effective."

The report had suggested that if the ombudsman answered to Hawley directly, the special counselor would not be able to interfere with site visits, and the administrator would be more accountable to the ombudsman's concerns.

In addition, the inspector general found that the ombudsman often had not filed reports after site visits, and since late 2006, has stored the data it did have in a database that cannot perform trend analysis.

The report also said TSA had failed to fully commit to and consistently use its Integrated Conflict Management System, which includes conflict resolution training and alternative dispute resolution.

For example, the IG said, airports did not always establish formal charters for employee advisory councils, which are supposed to represent transportation security officers, who do not have collective bargaining rights, or provide conflict coaches at field locations. More than one-fifth of employees surveyed said they had not received required conflict management training, and only 52 percent of airports were using concern forms to track employees' complaints.

The TSA response said the agency had announced that the Integrated Conflict Management System was mandatory in 2007 and would issue a management directive for the program by the end of 2008, drawing on earlier experiences to set performance expectations.

"While the directive will and the standards do articulate roles, responsibilities, principles and safeguards, they place accountability squarely with local management and within existing operations management and accountability systems" rather than with a national body, Hawley said. "IMCS standards are being integrated into job competencies, performance plans, training, hiring, rewards and recognition, and existing systems of accountability -- performance metrics, performance management and site assessments."

While TSA concurred with some of the IG's recommendations, it saw the issue of workforce morale in a starkly different light. Hawley criticized the report for focusing on airports identified as troubled by members of Congress, media reports or the Office of the Ombudsman. Such airports were not representative of TSA's overall performance, he said. The inspector general said those airports were chosen because researchers expected to find improved conditions at facilities where problems had been identified earlier.

But AFGE's Castilla said the report only affirmed the facts on the ground.

"Several thousand TSA officers who submitted their prior complaints versus their TSA employer…cannot all be lying," he wrote.

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