A few weeks ago, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine ran a significant piece on TSA, written by Neil Swidey. I use the word “significant” because the article is one of the best and most comprehensive I’ve read in the past several years about a DHS component. It does not pull punches about the problems TSA faced – both publicly and internally.
Swidey’s article does not seek to place “blame” as much as it explains how a series of adverse occurrences came together around the same time to create a “something must be done differently” culture that has driven TSA leadership over the past year to effect changes. Those improvements include changes in personnel, procedures and how private sector stakeholders are engaged – and they are working, to improve security and the public’s perception transportation security.
As our Security Debrief colleague Ken Dunlap explained last week:
“There’s a revolution percolating through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the form of a new collaborative model the agency is piloting for stakeholder engagement. It offers the promise of true government and industry coordination in strengthening security and deploying the resources of both more effectively. If it works for aviation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will have an effective and innovative model that can be used across the Department and by other sectors. The only question is will TSA writ large embrace the new engagement paradigm across administrations?” (emphasis added)
So what’s really going on at TSA that the incoming Trump administration team ought to notice (and not muck up)? This is the part where they need to pay close attention.
In short, it’s about changing the culture of the organization so that the leadership leads and the workforce is focused on mission execution. It started with core principles that TSA Administrator Pete Neffenger rolled out after a classified Inspector General report was leaked to the press claiming that many of the IG’s investigators had been able to get contraband through TSA airport checkpoints at an alarmingly high rate without being “caught.”
The public and Capitol Hill demanded answers and, as Swidey’s article points out, that adversity drove TSA to look at its problems in a very different way than it had before. Indeed, in a different way than most government agencies viewed a crisis.
Better and more in-depth training; mission-emphasis; operational excellence; and personnel engagement were the core principles that TSA leadership wanted instilled in every TSA employee. It was about rediscovering what Admiral Neffenger calls “TSA’s Identity.”
In late November, in a speech at Seton Hall University, Neffenger talked in depth about TSA’s transformation. The Trump transition team should study that speech carefully. It holds the key to implementing the type of change the new President says he wants to implement across the entirety of the federal government. Here is what Neffenger said:
“Our transformation began by changing the way we define ourselves. We said out loud and collectively that we were security professionals, working in an intelligence-driven, agile, adaptable counterterrorism agency focused on the security of our nation’s transportation systems. We all retook the oath of office. We learned that changing how we defined ourselves changed everything.”
Neffenger went on to talk about the way that change is occurring within TSA – from the employees who were supported by TSA leadership. It is an agency-driven initiative, not a top-down management directive. Management adopted the attitude that their role was to support and facilitate, not dictate. Empowering TSA employees to improve their own work environment. They opened innovation groups, created a training academy, and stood up a daily operations call where “hot spots” were identified, assistance was offered and prompt remediation of problems was rewarded, not punished. And in May 2016, TSA created an Airports Operations Center to monitor operations at the 20 busiest U.S. airports in real time. TSA’s Deputy Administrator, Huban Gowadia, came in from DNDO, where she had led the nuclear detection team while maintaining one of DHS’s highest employee satisfaction survey rankings. She set out to work on personnel and technology issues while Neffenger brought in Gary Rasicot, a former Coast Guard colleague, to become the Chief Operating Officer and address mission execution. And it is working.
Can there be further improvements? Of course. Every organization can find ways to improve. But what Neffenger’s team at TSA has done is beyond mere improvement. They have gone a long way down the pathway to changing the culture of a government organization that, as the Boston Globe headline said, “we love to hate.”
TSA’s leadership didn’t shy away from a task that many Beltway “experts” said was an impossible mission. Neffenger understood that far more often than not, people don’t fail – systems fail. And systems can always (perhaps, not easily) be fixed. Here is the conclusion he drew from his efforts:
“TSA has been charged with an enormous responsibility to protect our nation’s transportation systems – what we do matters…So here’s what I’ll leave you with: Know your mission – the real mission. And then, no matter what your role is, know that you, too, can drive change. You, too, can be creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative – you just have to be daring. You just have to take that first step…And, please say thank you to the Transportation Security Officers who keep you secure.”
When there is a problem at a checkpoint, we should not ignore it. But if we did say those two simple words, “Thank You,” to TSOs at airports, to Customs and Border Protection officers at U.S. ports of entry, and to others whose daily mission is to keep us safe and secure, the attitude of those officers would likely reflect back to us the respect and appreciation they receive.
It won’t work every time, to be sure, but it will work often enough – and it will help change the culture of the organization. Plus, it might make us feel a bit better about the difficult but important mission they have undertaken on our behalf.
I hope the Trump administration keeps the current TSA leadership team intact as it assumes the responsibility for running the Executive Branch. I hope that the “change” President-elect Trump has promised will use the example TSA has set this past year as the template for how real, effective change can occur.
I also hope that the public (including the too-frequent micro-managers on Capitol Hill) will acknowledge the positive changes that TSA has already implemented and will appreciate the difficulty of protecting the nearly 2 million passengers that use the commercial aviation system every single day of the year.
Finally, I hope that we, the stakeholders who use and benefit from a safe, secure and efficient aviation system, will develop a bit more patience and thoughtfulness about the speed at which cultural change can occur. It isn’t easy. It isn’t quick. It isn’t often very fun, but it is necessary if things are to get better….or dare I say, to get “great again.”