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Can the TSA ever deliver a great customer experience?

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 31, 2016

Those of us who have recently waited hours in line to clear security at airports across the U.S., especially at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, wonder why the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), an agency of the federal government, can’t deliver a better customer experience while keeping us safe. An opinion piece in the May 28 edition of The Wall Street Journal was headlined, “The TSA’s Summer of Lines: They’re from the government and they’re here to make you wait.” A fitting description of the current airport security screening situation.

Within the past month, passengers waiting to clear security at O’Hare have waited as long as three hours, causing many to miss their flights. Since the beginning of 2016, American Airlines reports that over 70,000 of its passengers across the U.S. have missed their flights due to long airport security lines.

Since 2011, the number of air travelers has increased 11 percent while the TSA has reduced the number of screeners by 10 percent. The TSA thought that their Pre-Check and other Trusted Travelers programs would hasten the security screening process. However, the TSA has not added a sufficient number of agents to interview applicants, resulting in applicants waiting months for an appointment. The airline policy of charging for checked baggage has resulted in an increase of carry-on bags, which has also slowed security screening.

Congress controls the purse strings of the TSA. During the 2013 budget sequestration process requiring across the board budget cuts, Congress diverted over $1 billion from the TSA budget into other areas, exacerbating the performance issues of the TSA. The airlines want this funding restored. Effective CEOs of successful companies don’t make across the board budget cuts – they continue to fund high-priority mission-critical areas, but this is the federal government, not a company in the private sector.

The findings of the Inspector General’s report in the summer of 2015 on TSA performance indicated during a test of the system that an astounding 95 percent of the fake weapons and explosive materials in bags sent though the TSA screening system were not detected. The TSA has slowed the screening process as a result of this finding as the agency tries to improve its detection performance.

An April 27 story in The Washington Post by Ashley Halsey III was headlined, “TSA bosses are called ‘some of the biggest bullies in government.’” The headline is a quote from Jay Brainard, one of TSA’s security directors in his testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who also stated, “While the new administrator of TSA has made security a much-needed priority once again, make no mistake about it, we remain an agency in crisis.” Managers who bully their employees and create a hostile work environment should never be tolerated in any organization.

In her article, Halsey reports that Mark Livingston, a program manager in TSA’s Office of the Chief Risk Officer, testified, “The refusal to address or to hold senior leaders accountable is paralyzing this agency. TSA employees are less likely to report operational security or threat-relevant issues out of fear of retaliation from supervisors, who fear further retaliation from their chain of command. No one who reports issues is safe at TSA.” This is a huge violation of a basic leadership principle that leaders need to create a culture where direct reports feel comfortable telling them about the brutal facts of reality. You can’t fix a problem unless you know what it is.

Former Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger was appointed head of the TSA in June 2015. He inherited an agency with multifaceted problems that did not develop over-night. These issues were part of a culture that developed over the years under the leadership of a number of administrators prior to Neffenger’s arrival. Why does the TSA have such a poor reputation, and why did the culture of the TSA, a newly formed agency 15 years ago, develop in this manner?

The rare opportunity to build a new organization from the beginning – a TSA organization with the right tone at the top, the right people and the right culture without having the need to dismantle a legacy organization, was unfortunately squandered. The TSA should have been established as an organization with two core imperatives: first – providing security to the nation’s air transportation network, and second – providing a great customer experience to those passing through the TSA system.

There is no reason why the customer service expectations of the traveling public should be any different than if they were purchasing a product or service from a company in the private sector. The traveling public deserves no less. All citizens dealing with any governmental entity are entitled to a great customer experience, since their tax dollars are paying for the service provided.

Few political leaders and government administrators place a high priority on customer experience. Unlike the private sector, government agencies generally do not face competitive pressures with the exception of the Postal Service, which faces competition from UPS and FedEx, and has lost significant business to both due to the high level of service and reliability that UPS and FedEx provides. Even with competition, it is very difficult for a federal agency to provide a great customer experience because it is not inherent in their mindset.

Airports have the ability to opt-out of the TSA managing the passenger screening process and can use a private contractor, even though the private contractor would be under the oversight of the TSA. In a July 2013 policy brief published by the Reason Foundation, Shirley Ybarra and Robert Poole Jr. wrote that it is a conflict of interest for the TSA both to set standards for passenger screening and then rate its own performance against its own standards. Ybarra and Poole wrote, “In practice, no matter how dedicated TSA leaders and managers are, the natural tendency of any large organization is to defend itself against outside criticism and to bolster its image. And that raises questions about whether TSA is as rigorous about dealing with performance problems within its own workforce as it is with those it regulates – such as airlines and airports.”

Ybarra and Poole point out that within the European Union and in Canada, this conflict of interest doesn’t exist since passenger screening is carried out either by the airport or by private contractors that must meet government standards.

Neffenger’s 2017 budget presentation on March 1 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, the subcommittee on Homeland Security ran 4,338 words. A scan of his presentation reveals that he only mentioned the term “customer service” twice. He mentioned the word “security” 43 times. Keeping air travelers secure is the TSA’s prime imperative. However, the near absence of focus on customer service is very telling. Hopefully the long lines at airports, missed flights and frustrated passengers will help the TSA and Congress, which approves the TSA budget, realize that delivering a great customer experience needs to be built into the mission and mindset of the agency. The traveling public deserves no less.

Stan Silverman is the founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a writer, speaker and advisor to C-suite executives on business issues and on cultivating a leadership culture within their organizations. Stan is Vice Chairman of the Board of Drexel University and a director of Friends Select School and Faith in the Future. He is the former President and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Website: www.SilvermanLeadership.com

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