TSA works to reduce attrition among top staff

Acting Administrator Gale Rossides aims to retain top staff. Acting Administrator Gale Rossides aims to retain top staff. Newscom photo

The Transportation Security Administration is taking steps to learn more about why senior executives leave the agency, TSA officials said in response to a Government Accountability Office report on high attrition rates among the agency's top career staff.

"TSA has built a strong and stable executive leadership corps," said Jerald Levine, director of the Homeland Security Department's GAO liaison office.

GAO found that TSA has relied heavily on senior executives, and during its early years, shed those executives more quickly than other federal departments. Instead of the Senior Executive Service, which provides career civilian leadership at most agencies, TSA uses the Transportation Security Executive Service, a similar corps of leaders that operates under the department's personnel flexibilities.

In fiscal 2005, the first full year of its existence, TSA had 2.7 executives per 1,000 employees, higher than any DHS component except the Secret Service and the Homeland Security headquarters office. That year, senior executive attrition in the agency reached 20 percent. In fiscal 2008, the number of TSA executives fell to 2.4 per 1,000 nonexecutive staffers, and the attrition rate dropped to 10 percent, slightly below the averages for DHS executives and executives governmentwide.

But from fiscal 2005 to fiscal 2008, the rate of executives resigning, rather than retiring or transferring to other departments, was high, GAO said. In fiscal 2005, 20 of the 32 executives who left the agency, or 63 percent, quit; in fiscal 2008, that rate had fallen to four of 15 departures, or 27 percent. Of the 46 former TSA senior executives whom GAO interviewed, 14 said they left the agency because they were dissatisfied with the management style of top leaders, and 12 reported that they were dissatisfied with the priorities and decisions of those leaders.

"TSA human capital officials acknowledged that attrition among TSES staff has been high at certain points in TSA's history," the report stated. "Once Administrator [Kip] Hawley, who served the longest term of any TSA administrator, was appointed, attrition among TSES staff declined."

The report noted that more than half the people interviewed who were supervised by executives who left TSA "stated that TSES attrition had little or no impact on TSA's programs and policies," though some said those departures "caused a lack of vision and direction for program development."

During GAO's review, TSA's exit survey did not provide a place where employees leaving the agency could indicate their rank, making it impossible to determine whether there were specific problems influencing the departure of executives. Since then, TSA has added an option to its survey for employees to indicate their payband, so the agency will be better able to study its executive corps.

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