Sunday, January 31, 2010

Comment on the Belmont Club:
"I'll be loving you internally"

TSA does have a small core of people who are in a program based on the Israeli model. It is called the SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observational Technique) program. If done properly it can work but it takes a large number of very skilled people. As with everything in government the problem isn't the concept but the people and the organization.

Here is one example of managerial incompetence at TSA. The Walk Through Metal Detector (WTD) assemblies frequently malfunction. The Siemens contract technicians could easily repair them but are not allowed to because each repair job request has to be released by the same firm that manufactures and sells new units. Some genius signed a contract worthy of Yes Minister and everyone is stuck.

TSA is dysfunctional mostly because the tail wags the dog. Right now it exists for the care and feeding of 40,000 screeners. Every week people are hired who are incapable of doing the job. Often they are pregnant so that they can not perform the lifting that is a basic job requirement. It is illegal to ask them about this or decline to hire them for that reason. So these girls are hired to sit on the exit, when they want to show up, for a few months and then they get to quit. Gross insubordination does not result in termination.

The Bush White House tried to fight it but couldn't after 9-11. They set it up so that the prior employees would be replaced and the new staff would be rigorously observed. They were called Screeners because all they were expected to do was detect an alarm and refer it to a Supervisor. That ended quickly. Everyone in the old security outfits that was a US citizen was hired and most of them are now Supervisors or even worse Managers. These are usually people with little education who were recent immigrants or otherwise problematic from an aptitude or security viewpoint. Senior Managers were retired federal LEOs interested in an easy retirement bonus. The other initial Managers were often local retired police sergeants who have no Management skills. Much of the other support staff came over from the FAA or other agencies who were only to happy to send their very best. To prevent the usual bureaucratic sloth TSA was set up as an Excepted Service outside of the usual General Service pay grades. That means that pay raises are a fraction of what they are in other government jobs. As a Supervisor in TSA I had responsibilities equivalent to those of a GS-11/12 in most agencies but I was paid like a GS-7 with less opportunity for advancement.

A new evaluation system was introduced a few years ago with a bewildering variety of tests, practicals and grading criteria to determine bonus and pay raise criteria. If the practicals are failed then people are out of a job so the prevailing air becomes one of fatalism in which money is collected now with no expectation of the future. It is easier to be failed as a Supervisor than as a Screener, they are tested on tasks they rarely perform, and almost impossible to be failed and terminated as a Manager. Since pay for Managers was based on high scores for those supervised there was every incentive to pressure the Supervisors to grade the staff falsely. Very few of the current Supervisors have the motivation, education, training, experience or aptitude to write proper evaluations. More important Washington set up endless hurdles on disciplinary efforts and there was constant back-channel politicking that made Supervisors throw up their hands and just go through the motions. Possibly a third of the current screening staff, who God help us now have pseudo LEO badges and get to call themselves Officers, should be removed as incompetent, abusive, or unstable.

What TSA needs is to be placed under the control of CBP, the current Managers should be removed and replaced with GS-13/14/15 CBP officers. Supervisors should be reserve or retired military officers. Screeners with the aptitude to be advanced to positions of greater responsibility should be routed through the SPOT or Trainer ranks and then promoted to Transportation Security Inspectors (TSIs), who are the non-LEO experts in Transportation Security.

Greater use of Explosive Trace Detector (ETD) devices by testing hands would alert on people who had handled prohibited items. It would also produce many false alarms and might not get someone who had explosives placed internally some hours before and had since cleaned thoroughly. One possible solution would be to make everyone pass through an explosive container chamber and subject them to radio signals that would set off any device. That off course would never get past the disabilities advocates. Right now the dog won't hunt.

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