Turnover Rate Stabilizes at Homeland Security

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, July 26, 2007

On issues of staffing, there is a glimmer of progress at the Department of Homeland Security.

The attrition rate -- employees who resign or transfer out of the department -- appears to be stable in key homeland security agencies, according to a recently released report by the Government Accountability Office.

If the Transportation Security Administration, which has suffered from high turnover, is not counted, the department's overall attrition rate is less than the federal average of 4 percent, the GAO found.

Homeland Security, not including the TSA, lost 3.3 percent of its employees in 2005 and 2006.

Turnover is only one method of taking stock of the department's health. Congress has also kept check on morale problems at the Homeland Security Department. In a government-wide survey last year, department employees rated it last or almost last in such areas as job satisfaction and leadership.

The issues have cropped up repeatedly on Capitol Hill, in large part because Congress looks to Homeland Security employees as a frontline defense against terrorism. Yesterday, for instance, House and Senate negotiators agreed on a compromise bill to carry out recommendations by the 9/11 Commission. The bill would create new Homeland Security programs and responsibilities, such as screening all cargo on passenger aircraft, within three years.

Congress has been especially troubled by churning in the department's top political and executive jobs.

In 2005 and 2006, the department's headquarters "experienced a turnover of more than half its senior employees through resignation or transfer to another executive branch department," the GAO report said.

The high attrition rate for passenger and baggage screeners at the TSA -- 17.6 percent in 2005 and 14.6 percent last year -- has also caused concern, though agency officials think a new career program started last year will make it easier to retain screeners.

The program is designed to help employees improve their technical skills, move into other career positions and boost morale. As part of the program, the TSA has markedly increased the frequency of bonuses in the past year, the GAO said.

To fill jobs, the department has used the Federal Career Intern Program to recruit employees. The interns serve in a two-year training program and, upon successful completion, move to regular civil service jobs.

In 2005, 15.5 percent of all new department hires were from the intern program, the GAO said. That share increased to 22.5 percent in 2006.

Troubled that such job tryouts are becoming the norm in government, the National Treasury Employees Union filed a lawsuit in January to stop the intern program, saying that it undermined civil-service rules aimed at open and fair competition for federal jobs.

At the top of Homeland Security, recruiting for political and career senior executive service positions does not seem to be a major problem, according to the data collected by the GAO. Only a few agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, reported trouble in filling senior executive service jobs.

Asked for a snapshot of the executive ranks, a Homeland Security spokesman said the department has been allocated 496 of the senior jobs, with 73 of those added in March. As of this week, 397 executives were on board.

Of the 99 vacant positions, 82 executives are being recruited or have been selected, the spokesman said.

The department's efforts to create a new pay and personnel system remain in flux, however. Congressional committees have proposed limiting the money available for creating a new system, which the department says would better reward the best workers.

Plans for the new system remain unclear in part because of litigation brought by unions. The department recently obtained a six-month extension from a federal judge who had requested a status report and now has until Jan. 17 to file the report.

House Panel Approves Military Pay Raise

The effort in Congress to provide a 3.5 percent pay raise to military personnel remains on track. The House Appropriations Committee yesterday approved $2.2 billion to cover the cost of the raise. The Senate voted to authorize the pay raise for the troops as part of a bill that would overhaul health care for military personnel and veterans.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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