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.



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    maroon78 (profile), Aug 9th, 2013 @ 9:47am

    Another possibility

    another possible answer for why these ideas were not implemented during his tenure:
    He was told what to do and didn't have any options. Maybe the politicians were directing the TSA and telling them what to do and how to do it.

     

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    Ninja (profile), Aug 9th, 2013 @ 10:13am

    If they go any deeper in their cavity searches I'm afraid they'll reach the other opening. No really, deeper is not good!

     

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    Rob, Aug 9th, 2013 @ 10:58am

    Thinking for themselves?

    Isn't "thinking for yourself" just a gateway drug that leads to whistleblowing?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 9th, 2013 @ 11:14am

    You are also assuming people capable of critical thinking would work for the TSA. I travel a fair amount and have not seen any evidence of this. As you say, it could be the culture, but you may be talking about a whole different hiring criteria.

     

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      any moose cow word, Aug 9th, 2013 @ 2:39pm

      Re:

      I think there is a fair about of truth in that. They don't want people who think for themselves, those only cause problems.

      People who "think" can get bored when faced with grueling thankless tasks every day. Things stop being interesting after they've groped 1000 groins or chest and heard every swear known to mankind, in every language--from grandmas no less. They become less attentive and make mistakes, which makes the agency look bad. However, pointlessly changing the rules can help keep them on their toes.

      People who "think" can get overzealous in their job and take extra "precautions" that aren't in the handbook. It might be out of a sense of duty to do "whatever" it takes, or that the paranoia of being hyper-vigilant for months on end makes them overreact, or just the monotonous boredom drives them to makes things more "interesting". Though that does workout sometimes and stops someone who might intend harm, it usually just backfires and makes the agency look bad.

      Worst of all, people who actually think can see the entire agency is a charade that doesn't really make anyone safe. They will either try to report the problems, or just blow the whistle on the whole corporate-political enterprise. Either way, it makes the agency look bad.

      So, you're probably right--they figure it's better to hire minions who will just stick to the rules, do as they are told, and don't think all that much. They're less likely to do something wrong if they don't really do anything.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 9th, 2013 @ 11:25am

    Maybe none of these ideas were implemented during Hawley's tenure because he switched off his mind in favor of just finishing out his tenure without rocking the boat?

     

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    Roland, Aug 9th, 2013 @ 12:12pm

    unfashionable

    Don't you know critical thinking went away in the '90's?
    Personnel are interchangeable parts now. Critical thinking
    was outsourced to computers. Snowden did some critical
    thinking, look where it got him. System Administration
    requires occasional critical thinking, that's why the NSA
    is on the road to eliminating it. The real important thing
    is preserving the agency's budget. All else is theater.

     

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    Anonymous, Aug 9th, 2013 @ 2:25pm

    Government is the disease.
    Anarchy is the cure.

     

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    Abara, Aug 9th, 2013 @ 4:33pm

    "1 in 16 TSA employees was investigated for misconduct last year"
    To treat this condition the solution is simple: just randomly fire 1 in 16 persons and nobody will ever be investigated for misconduct.
    Trust me ,I was formerly interested in curing things.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 10th, 2013 @ 5:03pm

    why not when he was in office?....because congress and atsa wouldn't let him change things!!! that's why not....

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 11th, 2013 @ 1:15am

    Giving more lazy government employees more power is not the answer. By this model, somebody thinks my wife or daughter is hot, or is jealous of me, he can single handedly take me from the flight? It looks like a perfect storm of abuse. I wish we could copy Israel, but our populace are mostly idiots.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 12th, 2013 @ 9:40am

    OMG, da gubnent!!

     

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