Report: TSA employee misconduct up 26 percent over the past three years

(Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
(Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

What gets measured--or monitored, in this case--gets managed.

That old management truism is the message, in essence, that a new Government Accountability Office report is sending the leaders of the Transportation Security Administration. The new report, released Tuesday, found a 26-percent rise in employee misconduct violations over the last three years and recommended that TSA managers establish a process for conducting reviews of violations, better record misconduct cases in a central database, and develop procedures for following up on completed misconduct investigations.

The GAO's report found that the annual number of TSA misconduct cases over the last three years has increased, from 2,691 in fiscal year 2010 to 3,408 in fiscal year 2012. The offenses include everything from sleeping on the job to failing to follow screening procedures to even theft. Roughly half of the offenses were related to attendance and leave (32 percent of cases) and screening and security (20 percent). In addition,the report says, 50 percent of the 2012 incidents of napping on the job were met with lower penalties than what was officially recommended.

The study's release follows news reports about TSA agents who had embezzled electronics and laptops worth $80,000, as well as other reports that the TSA was in the process of firing agents at Newark's Liberty International Airport who had not followed screening procedures. The GAO recognizes in the report that the TSA has taken action on some of the issues and, in a statement, the TSA said it "concurs with GAO’s four recommendations" and "is already working to implement these recommendations." The statement also notes that "all aspects of our workforce regimen--hiring, promotion, retention, training, proactive compliance inspections, investigations and adjudications--are driven by adherence to the highest ethical standards."

What's interesting to me was that last sentence in the TSA's response. It's worth noting that there was essentially nothing in the report that questions the TSA's hiring practices, promotion or retention tactics. The GAO does not appear to be explicitly questioning the quality of the employees, the incentives they are being given to do a good job, or any kind of cultural epidemic of unengaged supervisors. Rather, the report focuses entirely on how the TSA tracks, records, monitors and reviews misconduct, noting missing procedures, differing standards and a range of compliance issues.

That may be because the number of incidents, given that the TSA has an employee base of 56,000 people, is relatively small, as the screener's union argues. Or it may be because evenly disciplining employees, setting standards to which all workers must adhere, and tracking, recording and reviewing how punishments are meted actually are key parts of any organization's culture, even if not explicitly. What gets measured, and monitored, gets priority. Given the critical job of the TSA, let's hope a closer eye on how these misconduct cases are handled becomes even more of one.

Update: An earlier version incorrectly attributed the phrase "What gets measured, gets managed" to Peter Drucker.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · July 30, 2013