Denver Post


A morale mess in the TSA

Tuesday, April 15, 2003 - A reasonable effort to provide management flexibility in the new Department of Homeland Security should not become an excuse for arbitrary and capricious administration. Yet one important arm of homeland security may be undermining its own mission because of an inept, even mean-spirited, approach to human resources.

According to The Post's George Merritt, 16 Transportation Security Administration employees have complained that the TSA's heavy-handed management at Denver International Airport hurts morale and creates a potential security risk. Thirteen members of the group wrote directly to U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, a Boulder Democrat whose his district includes Adams County, where many TSA, airline and airport workers live.

When TSA employees applied for the security jobs, they thought they were doing a patriotic duty by keeping America's skies safer.

Instead, they said, they have seen the TSA devolve into a bureaucracy that punishes employees who raise legitimate concerns about the agency's operations. Instead of handing out rewards based on merit, the complaints said, managers give their friends perks and promotions. Meanwhile, hard-working employees can be demoted or fired without any explanation. The TSA apparently has no process for employees to appeal the decisions.

Udall is investigating the comments, but has not gotten cooperation from the TSA. In fact, the TSA so far has refused to even answer Udall's questions about the agency's personnel practices. Think of it: A member of Congress is asking a federal agency for information about its work rules and management practices, and the bureaucracy hasn't bothered to respond.

The public should be concerned, because the issue may extend beyond the 16 employees who wrote complaint letters. If morale deteriorates at the TSA, then brow-beaten workers might become less attentive, increasing the chances that discouraged security officers might let a dangerous person slip through security checkpoints.

President Bush had asked Congress to exempt the entire Homeland Security Department from traditional federal civil-service rules. Bush said that the change would help the department more efficiently deploy its human resources. Republicans in Congress supported that argument, despite Democratic complaints that the change would transform a professional, apolitical civil service into a fearful, partisan workforce. Still, Congress heeded Bush's request, so today Homeland Security employees have far fewer job-security protections than other federal workers in far less important roles.

If Bush was sincere in his claim that all his administration wanted through relaxed workplace rules was more flexibility to respond to security needs, then his administration should be worried about the TSA employees' complaints. If the criticisms prove true, then the TSA is not an agency able to respond swiftly to new situations, but a gaggle of feuding fiefdoms more focused on internal politics than in getting its crucial job done right.

Such an outcome not only would make the TSA less efficient. It would undermine the very reasons the federal government took over airport security in the first place.