“Organizations with poor performance are an outgrowth of their culture. These cultures have turned-off and cynical employees whose primary motivation is to make it to the weekend and ultimately to retirement.”
-Stewart Liff, author, human resources management expert, and federal employee of 32 years.
Many problems plague the TSA, but there is one organizational flaw that stands out above the rest, to those in the know: the TSA’s yearly recertification tests.
A couple weeks ago, a little-noticed story ran on NewJersey.com, involving disgruntled TSA and AFGE (the TSA’s union) representatives at Newark Liberty International.
From the article:
“After the union contract, morale was up, with people thinking, ‘We finally have rights,’ ” said Stacy Bodtman, a screener at Newark Liberty International Airport. “Now it’s back down, with people feeling like the TSA is just going around doing whatever they want to do.
Union officials say the TSA agreed in the contract to cooperate with the AFGE in developing a new employee evaluation system, but then implemented one on its own.
“Instead of collaboratively working on the development of this system — and the union repeatedly asked about this — the agency said ‘This is the new system.’ ” said Chad Harris, an attorney for the AFGE.”
There it is, tucked away in a tiny news story: a hint at what is possibly the biggest systemic flaw of the TSA’s that nearly no one talks about. I wrote about it before; chose to make it the subject of the second post i made on this blog, in fact. But when it comes to the annual testing at TSA, its absurdity cannot be overemphasized.
Here’s how it works: you know all those exasperating, superfluous song-and-dance security theater routines that you have to endure when you go through a TSA checkpoint? The lengthy advisements you tell the TSA screener he or she can just skip? The TSA’s elaborate removal of your cosmetic bag from your suitcase before it’s run back through the x-ray? The TSA officer peeking beneath your watch after you’ve gone through the full body scanner, as though he or she is really going to find anything there that matters?
Twice a calendar year, every single TSA employee, regardless of how long he or she has has been with the organization or how well he or she has proved perfectly capable of performing as a TSO, is called off the checkpoint floor into a little room to take what’s called a PSE (practical skills evaluation). There they are forced to perform an elaborate version of those routines, in front of two testers. Essentially, what this amounts to is thousands of TSA employees being needlessly pulled off the checkpoint floor for several hours per year in order to retake an absurd test they just passed as little as 6 months prior.
In addition to these PSEs, all TSA employees also have at least two other redundant annual certification tests looming over their heads, all of which can mean termination.
This is, by far, the most hated aspect of a TSA screener’s job, and for good reason.
The central problem with the tests is that, though they are purportedly designed to be reflective of a TSO’s suitability as a TSA employee, they actually have very little to do with a TSO’s day-to-day function. In fact, they have nearly nothing to do with it: the tests are only effective at measuring how good a TSO is at giving an ornate performance in a small room during a 2-hour chunk of the year.
And yet, this tiny fraction of a TSA screener’s work year, when it comes down to it, is the critical factor in determining whether or not a screener will keep his or her job– not how well he or she treats the public. Not whether or not the screener is incapable of interacting with the public and co-workers in a reasonable manner. Not whether or not the TSO even bothers to show up for work most of the time
The PSEs are, I believe, what our tragically absent former-TSA-blogger friend over at the defunct TSAblog was referring to when he drew this (whether consciously or unconsciously):
Screeners nervously waiting in line to take the absurd PSE test. The artist captures one of the most common PSE-related in-jokes among TSA employees, which is funny because it’s true: a large portion of the obscure questions posed to TSA officers during recertification tests would, in practice– outside of the test world– be answered by an officer calling for a supervisor or taking a look at the checkpoint copy of the SOP.
Many of you may be thinking: “Good! Let the TSA screeners be pulled off the floor and constantly evaluated with absurd, redundant tests! Serves them right! We have to deal with– and be intimidated by– absurd and redundant TSA rules, so let the screeners have to deal with those absurd tests!”
That is an understandable first reaction.
But this flaw of the TSA’s organizational design requires more than just a cursory assessment and gut-level reaction. That’s why TSA employees are unable to garner much attention from the media, lawmakers, or the general public in regard to the recertification system: the problem of the recert tests is nuanced.
Think about it:
Guess who’s paying for the time and resources wasted in order to conduct all of this absurd and redundant testing? Guess who’s paying for the replacement new-hires brought about by the terminations that result from this flawed system? Guess who’s footing the bill for all the costs associated with the in-processing and training of those new hires, as well as for all the effects of the call-offs, paper work, and legal dust-ups that come about as a result of the organization-wide disaffection with the TSA’s absurd recertification test?
That’s right: you pay for it, taxpayer.
Let’s take an even closer at the TSA’s recertification system, dear public. It’s long overdue.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE TERMINATED: A CASE STUDY OF THE TSA’S RECERTIFICATION SYSTEM.
First, as with any government organization, we must look at the congressional mandate laid out for the organization in regard to its mission. For the TSA, that would be the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001.
Click on that, and you can see the TSA when it was just a twinkle in the Department of Transportation’s eye. Who knew that the baby would grow up into the dysfunctional 11-year-old that our nation now has on its hands. As for the recertification system: in terms of federal requirements, the ATSA outlines the following:
‘‘(5) ANNUAL PROFICIENCY REVIEW.—The Under Secretary
shall provide that an annual evaluation of each individual
assigned screening duties is conducted and documented. An
individual employed as a security screener may not continue
to be employed in that capacity unless the evaluation demonstrates that the individual—
(A) continues to meet all qualifications and standards
required to perform a screening function;
(B) has a satisfactory record of performance and attention to duty based on the standards and requirements
in the security program; and (C) demonstrates the current knowledge and skills
necessary to courteously, vigilantly, and effectively perform screening functions.”
So here we see that a TSO must be annually assessed, documented and certified as possessing the necessary knowledge and skills so as to courteously, vigilantly and effectively perform his or her duties.
Upper management at TSA often lies to its employees, claiming that the reason that the dysfunctional recertification system is in place is because Congress mandated that it be so. But every knowledgeable TSO who has read the ATSA knows that this isn’t true. The truth is that there are many ways the TSA could go about administering its annual recertification; the absurd system in place is just the way it has chosen to go about doing it.
TSA headquarters is all too well aware of their employees’ overwhelming disaffection with the testing system, believe me. But TSA ignores them, claiming that nothing can be done:
“The universal hatred of our annual recertification system is just a case of bad employees whining. If they are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, they should have nothing to complain about.”
At worst, this oft-heard line of upper management’s is a deliberate and conscious lie, delivered by suits who are well aware that the recertification system is sloppy and ineffective. At best, it is simply born of naiveté– a classic case of leadership analyzing its organization in a narrow, top-down fashion. Any systems management expert will tell you that if your entire workforce is in agreement and outrage about something within your organization, then there is a problem. At the very least, it points to a failure in communication: a policy is in place the purpose of which the workers have not been properly made to understand. At the very worst– and what is most certainly the case with the TSA’s recertification system– it points to a systemic flaw.
So allow me to give you that ground-up view, as a former front-line insider. I will provide you with a case study of employees I actually knew at TSA– archetypical TSA employees that every screener is well-acquainted with– and walk you through how the TSA’s annual recertification system actually works in relation to them.
For sake of anonymity, we’ll call our four TSA employees: TSO Huey, TSO Louie, TSO Dewey, and, last but not least, TSO Scrooge McDuck.
The quack pack.
TSO TYPE 1: HUEY, THE GOOD SCREENER AND MASTER THESPIAN
Huey is a good TSA screener — there are some of them out there, believe it or not, dear public– intelligent and hard-working; he always shows up to work, has never failed to catch a threat item while on duty, is friendly to the public, and has been with the TSA for 10 years, through thick and through thin: through all the absurdity and embarrassing mistakes that the organization has made. Huey has tried to make the best of the TSA’s unfortunate existence for everyone– co-workers and flying public, alike.
In other words, Huey is one of the employees that the TSA should really want to treat well, and one of the TSA employees the public wants at their airports (assuming that their choice is limited to a good TSA screener versus a bad TSA screener).
Every few months, the TSA pulls Huey off the checkpoint floor, sends him into a little room, and tells him that if he is unable to perform a song-and-dance routine to the satisfaction of two people watching him, clipboards in-hand, then he is going to have one strike against him toward termination.
However, lucky for Huey, he is a good performer and test-taker, and is lucky enough to pass this absurd test within two tries almost every year, after which he is given a pat on the head and told that his little monkey-dance performance has now certified him as being worthy to continue working for the TSA! Hooray for Huey! He goes back out on the floor and continues the excellent work he’s been doing for his poor organization for more than a decade, and everything is fine.
Until a few months later, when Huey is forced to go into that same small room and perform the entire thing again, once more under threat of termination. Huey is the model TSA employee, from both the public and the organization’s point of view, but he can’t help but think that something here is not right…
TSO TYPE 2: DEWEY, THE GOOD BUT NERVOUS LITTLE DUCK
Dewey is also a good employee– he has also served the TSA for years, is pleasant to work with, courteous to the flying public, has never been written up by any of his supervisors or observed to not be following procedure during the course of his entire career– but he does not get so lucky when he is pulled into the little room for one of his bi-annual tests. He gets a little nervous– a small room with two clipboard-holding TSA testers watching him is not his work environment, after all; he’s out of his home pond– and messes up his theatrical performance. He blanks, and– gasp– fails to use enough pressure when when patting down the test subject’s crotch area! For this reason, he is told that, despite all his excellent service to the American public, he has critically failed in his duties as a federal employee for the year, all on account of this single one-hour performance. He will have to be pulled into the little room to do the entire song-and-dance routine over again, and if he makes two more mistakes during the performances, he will be tossed to the curb by the TSA. Dewey has a mortgage, a wife and children; he now becomes even more nervous than he was the first time he took the test, and on the following two attempts to pass his PSE, makes similarly trivial mistakes.
He is informed that his 10-years of quality, real-world service are now null and void, and that he is no longer fit to be a TSA employee. Termination papers will be arriving within a matter of months. Dewey is devastated, and begins to cultivate a deep, dark loathing for the organization.
However, he also begins preparing a legal defense…
TSO TYPE 3: LOUIE, THE BAD LITTLE BASTARD
Now we come to Louie, a shitty TSA employee.
This guy is rude to the public, rude to his co-workers, rarely shows up to work, has been written up for failing to follow procedure several times; TSO Louie is one undesirable, crappy employee, who is also– luckily for everyone but Louie– not a good test taker. When he goes into the little room and fails his PSE test, finally, the TSA recertification has done its job, incidentally though it may have been. Everyone cheers.
But Louie knows that– though he happened to be correctly identified as being a problem employee by the TSA’s recertification system– that still doesn’t change the fact that the system is absurd. He’s seen many of his unfairly terminated co-workers, such as Dewey the Nervous Duck up there, successfully appeal terminations based on the TSA’s annual recertification test. So so he too begins preparing a legal defense in the interest of getting himself reinstated as a TSA employee.
And so this rightfully terminated employee may very well slide right back into the job on the precedent of those screeners who were wrongfully terminated…
Finally, we come to the most pernicious of them all:
TSO TYPE 4: SCROOGE MCDUCK
Don’t let the slick way he walks into his annual recertification test fool you. TSO Scrooge is a bad apple. He seems to be everywhere at TSA. He does not fit the last part of that Aviation and Transportation Security Act’s stated mission at the inception of the TSA: to serve the public in courteous manner. He is a rude, unintelligent, all around horrible employee. Every year, there are thousands of screeners like Scrooge who do not meet the “courteous” part of the mission criteria set out by the ATSA, but who are able to continue working at the TSA due to the fact that the TSA’s certification system–the essential, bare-bones, pass or fail aspect of it– does not weigh that aspect of a screener’s performance as a critical element; at its heart, the TSA’s certification system values only the screener’s ability to give a satisfactory 1-2 hour performance, thus perpetuating the theatrical culture of the TSA.
Thousands of bad TSA screeners like Mr. Scrooge up there have discovered that they have a knack for gaming the system; for doing just enough to not get fired throughout most of the year, and then cramming for the test in order to pass their certification when the time comes. The system encourages the survival and proliferation of these hangers-on.
So now let’s see what happens to the 4 main types of screeners after the test.
TSO Type 1) Most of the long-time TSA employees who have become adept at passing all of the TSA’s absurd, redundant tests are, of course, happy that they are able to do so, but at the same time feel a great amount of resentment over the fact that they are constantly having their job hung out on the line in the form of a test that has very little to do with their true day-to-day performance, and are further disillusioned by watching year in year out as…
TSO Type 2) …perfectly good employees are terminated due to the absurd tests. Many of these employees file appeals with the Merit Systems Protection Board claiming (rightly) that their termination was unjust, a lengthy and involved process, which, if they are lucky, results in the once-terminated employee being re-hired with a newfound seething hatred for the organization, giving hope to…
TSO Type 3)…the bad TSA employees who fail the absurd yearly certification system, and see that it can be fought and won by following the example of the good TSOs who fight the system. Many of the bad TSOs do manage to get re-instated, just like the good employees who legitimately manage to get their jobs back. These bad employees quickly learn their lesson, namely that all they have to do in order to keep their jobs at TSA is to be more like…
TSO Type 4) …the unfriendly, all-around undesirable TSA employees whose M.O. is to do just enough to not get fired all year round, and then pull it together a few times a year for the recert testing. All the other TSA employee types, as much as they might dislike this guy, begin to look at him and wonder why they shouldn’t do the same. . .
Meanwhile, all the TSA employees who are terminated by the TSA’s absurd annual recertification test are replaced by new-hires. Some of the new-hires will of course be desirable employees, and some of them will be undesirable employees. But what will all of them, regardless of whether good or bad, ask the veteran TSA employees when first coming onto the job?
“How is it, working for the TSA?” the new hire will ask one of the bad employees.
The bad TSA employee will tell him or her, in conspiratorial tones: “It ain’t bad. All you have to do is learn to lay low, see, pass the ridiculous yearly recertification system we have here, and it’s easy money from there.”
“How is it, working for the TSA?” the new hires asks one of the good TSA employees.
The response comes: “There are a lot of problems here. TSA will get rid of you in a minute, no matter how good of an employee you’ve been, and no matter how long you’ve been here. They don’t value good people. There are a lot of bad people here who will never get fired, and a lot of good people who have been tossed overboard after years of service for questionable reasons. Get out of here as soon as you can, kid.”
The TSA’s recertification system throws out good employees right with the bad, and allows all the worst types of employees to remain employed. Thus the good new hires begin immediately scrambling to get out of TSA, the bad new hires begin preparing to become adept at working the TSA system, the TSA’s culture continues to be pervaded by a extremely low morale, and the wheels of this factory of discontent keep churning, year after year– a vicious circle powered by your tax dollars.
SO WHAT’S TO BE DONE?
What should the TSA’s recertification system look like instead, you ask?
Ask almost any TSA employee and he or she will give you several ideas on how to make it better. The problem is that no one listens. Headquarters looks down and sees a system that is satisfactory in terms of providing something that the TSA can hold up to taxpayers and congress as superficially convincing proof of its “exacting, rigorous” certification system, despite the fact that it is, in fact, critically faulty. The media and government watchdog organizations may hear rumblings from TSA employees about the unfairness of the recertification system, but see nothing headline-ready, or worthy of investigation.
“TSA Certification System Found to be Ineffective” does not have the same ring to it as “Nude X-Ray Scanners Found to be Ineffective,” or “OIG Investigation Determines That Billion-Dollar Behavior Detection Program is a Farce.”
If we were to tally all the hidden and collateral costs of the TSA’s recertification system, I’m sure it would come out to be greater than any of the previously exposed wastes of TSA funds than before.
Personally, I believe that the shortest answer to fixing the TSA’s broken recertification system is, as is usually the case with lumbering bureaucratic government organizations, to trim and consolidate.
A TSO’s yearly bonus and pay raise is already determined by his or her supervisor in the form of what is now called the TOPS system, so it would make sense if, instead of pulling every single TSA employee off the checkpoint for several hours a year to perform in a little room, the TSA employee’s certification status were continually monitored by supervisors or training department personnel observing the TSO while in the actual course of his or her duty, using holistic metrics that would factor a TSO’s public and co-worker interaction into their certification status.
If TSA employees knew that their every action on the checkpoint floor, while in the course of performing their duties, was subject to being held against them in terms of their certification status, then they would also have much greater incentive to always perform their duties courteously and in accordance with the SOP, not just in anticipation of a semi-annual recertification test.
In addition, this on-the-job observation would naturally be on-tape, as all checkpoints are monitored by CCTV, thereby making any claims of critical failure by a TSO in the course of his of her duties subject to substantiation– no more sketchy claims by test administrators, leading to a reduction in appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
This is but one possible solution to the TSA’s current, horrendously flawed annual recertification system. Almost every single TSA employee despises the recertification system, and many of them have good ideas as to how to revamp it.
I’m not sure what it will take for the TSA to finally revamp its system. It seems the union doesn’t have the power to effect change, the media will not take interest in such a story, and TSA employees are either all too happy to continue gaming the system, or are so resigned and disillusioned that the majority of them no longer have any hope of making change.
I would open up a whitehouse.gov petition calling for a revamp of the TSA’s annual recertification system, just to try to bring more attention to this absurd system of the TSA’s, but I am almost positive that the 100,000 signatures required for an official White House response would not be even nearly attained.
This should not be the case.
There are approximately 40,000 TSA employees, the vast majority of whom are well aware that the TSA’s annual recertification system is broken and regard it with the utmost contempt. There are at least as many former TSA employees who feel the same. And there are thousands of members of the public who recognize that the TSA has been an ill-functioning organization nearly from the beginning, and who should be on-board any measure (short of actually bringing about its abolishment) to make the organization less costly to taxpayers and less rife with undesirable employees. 100,000 signatures should be attainable.