Best/Worst Places to Work in Government

June 14, 2017

Each year, the Partnership for Public Service publishes its “Best / Worst Places to Work” reports based on a survey of thousands of Federal employees conducted by the Office of Personnel Management. Each year, hope springs eternal that the aviation security community in general, and the Department of Homeland Security in particular (parent agency to TSA) will see their fortunes rising in the collective eyes of their own employees and the traveling public. Each year, we’re wrong.

First, the hard numbers: of all 18 large Federal agencies, DHS is dead last – #18. Of all seven deemed to be National Security Agencies, DHS is dead last again – #7. To be fair, DHS is actually up 2.7 index points from last year, but at 45.8; still below the government-wide median and only slightly above only one other year since 2005. Its highest score in 2010 was only 58.6, showing a 13-point slide in 7 years.
The survey draws from only 15 of the 22 DHS sub-agencies (it’s not clear why, although a few are administratively small and perhaps statistically less significant offices), but the larger ones clearly have the most impact on the survey, and tend to be the ones the flying public loves to hate… TSA, CBP, ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, US Secret Service, among others.

For purposes of the Airport Business audience, let’s look at TSA, which is probably the most visible to the most airport travelers. Out of 305 sub-agencies across the entire government, TSA is #303, at 35.5 index points, down five points from last year, squeezing out only two of its sister DHS agencies as worse places to work: the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (#304) and the US Secret Service (#305). Parsing TSA down into 14 business-related categories, including five types of effective leadership, strategic management, pay, teamwork, innovation, training, and performance-based advancement, not a single category improved from last year; the same was true for 13 demographic categories.

In one peculiar breakdown, there were only five TSA occupational sub-groups listed, two of which improved slightly (contract specialist and IT specialist), two did not change (economist and auditor) and HR specialist declined 5.2 points -- but security specialist – the primary purpose of the entire TSA population of 48,872 - was not listed at all. However, we get a flavor of “why” from the following data: during the past year, 4,833 employees left – nearly 10%; while only 889 (1.8%) joined, leaving about an 8% hiring gap in just one year, and a similar but slightly smaller imbalance for each of the preceding four years… apparently, people keep leaving faster than they can be surveyed while emptying their locker on the way out.

One industry wag says he keeps the TSA organization chart on his wall using yellow sticky notes in order to keep up with what seems like bi-weekly announcements of constant re-assignments, position shifts, office re-structuring and changes in areas of responsibility … they barely have time to learn one job before moving to another one… maybe cross-training is a good thing. I have personally spent considerable time recently simply trying to find out who is currently in charge of one particular office. Nobody seems to know; and nobody seems to know how to find out. The most recent reference to filling that office on the TSA web site is a press release dated 2006; one name retired long ago, and I’m pretty sure another is deceased.

I’m not sure what message this sends to young security-minded people seeking a career in government service, other than it’s not the long-term commitment it used to be.