Transportation Security Administration:

TSA Executive Attrition Has Declined, but Better Information Is Needed on Reasons for Leaving and Executive Hiring Process

GAO-10-139: Published: Oct 9, 2009. Publicly Released: Oct 9, 2009.

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The Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) Transportation Security Executive Service (TSES) consists of executive-level staff serving in key agency positions just below political appointees. Committees of Congress have raise questions about the frequency of turnover within the TSES and have directed GAO to examine turnover among TSES staff. Accordingly, this report examines: (1) TSES attrition and how it compares with that of Senior Executive Service (SES) staff in other DHS components and cabinet-level departments, (2) the reasons TSES staff separated from TSA, and (3) TSA efforts to mange TSES attrition consistent with effective management practices. To answer these objectives, GAO analyzed data within the Office of Personnel Management's Central Personnel Data File, reviewed TSA human capital policies and procedures, and interviewed former TSES staff. The results of these interviews are not generalizable, but represent the views of about half the TSES staff who separated from fiscal years 2005 through 2008.

Separation data from fiscal years 2004 through 2008 show that attrition among TSA's TSES staff was consistently lower than the rate of attrition among all DHS SES staff and, through 2007, higher than SES attrition for all other cabinet-level departments. Separations among TSES staff peaked at 20 percent in fiscal years 2005, but declined each year thereafter, and resignations (as opposed to retirements, terminations, transfers to other cabinet level departments, or expirations of a term appointment) were the most frequent type of TSES separations over this period. In interviews with 46 former TSES staff, the majority (36 of 46) identified at least one adverse reason (that is, a reason related to dissatisfaction with some aspect of their experience at TSA) for leaving, as opposed to a nonadverse reason (such as leaving the agency for another professional opportunity). The two most frequently cited reasons for separation were dissatisfaction with the leadership style of the TSA administrator or those reporting directly to him (14 of 46) and to pursue another professional opportunity (14 of 46). To better address TSES attrition and manage executive resources, TSA has implemented measures consistent with effective human capital management practices and standards for internal control in the federal government. These measures include, among other things, reinstating an exit survey and establishing a process for hiring TSES staff that encompasses merit staffing requirements. However, TSA could improve upon these measures. For example, due to TSA officials' concerns about respondents' anonymity, TSA's new exit survey precludes TSES staff from identifying their position. Without such information, it will be difficult for TSA to identify reasons for attrition specific for TSES staff. Moreover, inconsistent with internal control standards, TSA did not document its adherence with at least one merit staffing procedure for 20 of 25 TSES hired in calendar year 2006 and 8 of 16 TSES hired in calendar year 2008. Although there are internal mechanisms that provide TSA officials reasonable assurance that merit staffing principles are followed, better documentation could also help TSA demonstrate to an independent third party, the Congress, and the public that its process for hiring TSES staff is fair and open.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To address attrition among TSES staff and improve management of TSES resources, the TSA Administrator should ensure that the National Exit Survey, or any other exit survey instrument TSA may adopt, can be used to distinguish between responses provided by TSES staff and other staff, so that the agency can determine why TSES staff, in particular, are separating from TSA.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) ability to collect data on the reasons Transportation Security Executive Service (TSES) staff left the agency was limited because the agency's National Exit Survey, a tool for collecting information on the reasons for staff separation, did not allow separating executives to identify themselves as TSES-level staff. Thus, we recommended that TSA enable TSES staff to identify their level of employment when completing the survey. In March 2010, TSA's Office of Human Capital updated the National Exit Survey instrument to include "TSES" among its pre-set list of position titles to allow for the collection of data specific to TSES staff taking the survey. This amendment was consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To address attrition among TSES staff and improve management of TSES resources, the TSA Administrator should require that TSA officials involved in the staffing process for TSES staff fully document how they applied each of the merit staffing principles required by TSA when evaluating, qualifying, and selecting individuals to fill career TSES positions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We reviewed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staffing folders for hiring Transportation Security Executive Service (TSES) staff and found that documentation of merit staffing procedures was not complete. We recommended that TSA officials involved in the staffing process of TSES staff fully document how they applied each of the merit staffing principles required by TSA when evaluating, qualifying, and selecting individuals to fill career TSES positions. In August 2010, TSA submitted (and GAO reviewed) the results of two internal audits of staffing folders to close this recommendation. Given that several corrective actions were identified as a result of these audits, we determined that more time was needed to assess whether underlying personnel policies and procedures were being consistently applied. The recommendation remained open. In December 2011, we requested the results of additional audits, and TSA provided documentation of another audit. Although TSA's initial plans for addressing our recommendation called for more frequent audits, TSA confirmed that the audits of TSES staffing folders we received--dated June 2, 2010, July 2, 2010, and March 2, 2011--represented all audits conducted and covered all open TSES positions for the period. We analyzed the results of the audits, and found that, with each successive audit, there was a decrease in the percentage of staffing folders requiring corrective actions (for example, in June 2010, three-fourths of staffing folders required corrective actions, and in March 2011 one-fourth required corrective actions). Given these results, we determined that TSA's personnel policies and procedures for hiring TSES staff were being more consistently applied by TSA officials involved in the staffing process. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

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