Former TSA Head Kip Hawley On The TSA's Misconduct Problems: Fix The Disease, Not The Symptoms

from the would-be-nice-if-someone-NOT-in-a-'former'-position-would-have-some-good dept

Former TSA head Kip Hawley seems to have tons of ideas on how to make the TSA better now that he can no longer make these changes. But it's the thought that counts, I suppose.

Hawley's latest op-ed on improving the TSA takes on the latest GAO report that found 1 in 16 TSA employees was investigated for misconduct last year. What Hawley takes issue with is the report's recommendations, which he feels only touch the surface, rather than attack the root.

[W]hen the Government Accountability Office found increased Transportation Security Administration officer misconduct, it just ratcheted up their unpopularity. The report was jarring and disturbing -- rising numbers of absenteeism, theft and intentional security lapses. Obviously, these are red flags that can't be ignored.

Unfortunately, instead of taking on the issue of stopping the misconduct, GAO's focus was on how TSA "could strengthen oversight of allegations of employee misconduct," the safe issues of process oversight, management of the accusations and data gathering versus digging into the controversial root causes of the actual misconduct.
Hawley's right, in a way. Adding more paperwork to the process doesn't do much more than fill up personnel files and provide job security for those fighting the War on Terror from behind a desk. Still, some improvements should be made in this area as well. Many officials talk a good game about "oversight," but rarely follow through with any sort of effectiveness.

But, the problems at the TSA runs deeper than an additional layer of oversight would have any hope of reaching. The problem is the culture, for lack of a better word.
In today's TSA, too many officers switch off their minds in favor of just finishing out the shift without rocking the boat. This may be the root cause of the GAO-identified misdeeds. TSA needs to have its officers switched-on and motivated.
This isn't just a TSA problem. It can be found in many workplaces, both public and private. The issue here is that TSA agents are entrusted with airport security, something that requires active participation and focus. Motivation comes in many forms, but many entities are content to let "not getting fired" be the primary motivator.

What Hawley is proposing goes against the grain of agency thinking, and that itself is an almost insurmountable hurdle.
Security officers are in the best position to use their experience and training and detect a threat not covered in the Standard Operating Procedure. Al Qaeda knows the rules and designs its attacks to comply with it. To stop attacks, officers thinking on their own needs to be encouraged, not disciplined.

Once officers are allowed to think for themselves, it opens the door for mistakes and criticism. But people can be taught the fundamentals of risk management, which provides a framework for making informed judgments.
This is a good idea, albeit one extremely difficult to implement at this point, hence the agency's preference to focus on surface layer issues. What would ease this transition to a reliance on critical thinking, rather than a reliance on multitudinous, ever-shifting policies, would be to strip back the agency back to the pre-9/11 version of airport security.

Obviously, not everything could be rolled back, but much of it could be streamlined in a way that makes the process less of a chore for both passengers and TSA agents. With much of the mission creep bulldozed, agents would be forced to rely more on critical thinking than on the simplistic yes/no binary of policies. Hawley suggests as much, suggesting improvements like removal of the intrusive pat-down process and drastically cutting the prohibited items list.

Trusting your employees to make the right decisions is extremely hard for most companies, much less government agencies. The TSA may never reach the point that it does, considering it's already hampered by a mindset that views most Americans with suspicion. But if it were able to make this change, the end result would be an optimized security force. Those who can't work without the safety net of "policy" would depart, either voluntarily or otherwise. Those that remained would be active participants in their own job, rather than having to be nothing more than the embodiment of inflexible policies, most of which were written as a reaction to a previous incident, rather than crafted with the future in mind.

But, again, it must be pointed out (as it has been here and other places), if Hawley has so many great ideas on overhauling the TSA, why wasn't any of this implemented during his stint at the controls? Hindsight may offer astounding clarity, but it's of little use to the public on the receiving end of a more than a decade's worth of bad policies.

Filed Under: kip hawley, tsa

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Aug 2013 @ 9:40am

    OMG, da gubnent!!

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