What it’s like to run the TSA
By Tom Fox,
John S. Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration since July 2010, oversees the management of a workforce of 60,000; security operations at more than 450 U.S. airports; the Federal Air Marshal Service; and the security of highways, railroads, ports, mass transit systems and pipelines. As a national security and counterterrorism expert during his 26-year career at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Pistole headed the agency’s expanded counterterrorism program after 9/11 and was named deputy director in 2004. He has worked on several high-profile investigations, including the attempted car bombing in Times Square in 2010; the attempted attack on Northwest Flight 253 by the so-called “underwear bomber” in 2009; and the plot against New York City subways that same year. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, author of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.
What management challenges do you face and what are you doing to overcome them?
One of the challenges I faced when I arrived was how to craft a vision for TSA that makes sense for people who have been taught they are here to make sure that 9/11 does not happen again, and to treat everyone the same during the screening process. It was a one-size-fits-all construct. I saw opportunities to redefine the agency’s work and look for ways to provide the most effective security in the most efficient manner by not focusing as much on those we know more about.
Across the country, TSA conducts security screenings for almost 1.8 million people every day. That’s over 50 million people a month. We are looking at how we can be more risk-based in our security approach, the core of which is trying to differentiate passengers and the requisite screening they should be afforded, based on the information and intelligence we have about them. I start out every day with an intelligence briefing that informs me about what the terrorists are thinking. This information plays a key role as we determine how we should change our protocol while still providing the best customer service possible and respecting privacy issues.
In the face of recent criticism, how do you keep employees motivated and engaged in TSA’s mission?
We try to be proactive in supporting the workforce when there is criticism. For example, I will personally call individual security officers to thank them for their professionalism when I know they have dealt with a challenging situation or had what we call a good catch. I also visit airports and have town halls with security officers and hold separate meetings with the general managers and senior leadership, and empower them to focus on our role as a U.S. counterterrorism agency fulfilling a national security mission. It’s about looking at the little things that can cause catastrophic failures in aircraft, not just looking for common prohibited items like a small knife. Our approach is about using more common sense and doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all. That message is resonating with the workforce from the feedback I’m getting.
But it is an ongoing challenge to effectively communicate with a large, diverse and dispersed workforce. It is definitely not a perfect system so that’s something we continue to work on. It’s doubly important to have effective communication and I’m focused on it every day. Our workforce does not sit at a desk, so we face the unique challenges of reaching our employees in new and different ways. We do send out routine email messages, but also distribute videotape messages and establish local communications channels to reach frontline employees. The videotaped messages are used to inform officers of a policy change, like our recently implemented changes for screening passengers 12 and under, and they are delivered to all the security officers before they start their shift to make sure we brief everybody.
What tools or techniques do you use to make sure employees bring ideas and problems to your attention?
One is called the “Idea Factory,” which is a web-based tool where employees can offer suggestions to leadership. It was founded by my predecessor. Employees with suggestions or ideas on how to do things better are encouraged to submit those, and many of those ideas have gone on to become policies. We also have a local and a national advisory council. I meet with the national advisory council several times a year and we go over things they’re hearing at their local airports and issues they’re dealing with. I get their feedback and run ideas past them. I also meet periodically with the federal security directors in charge of the airports. I recognize the importance of being collaborative and getting input, but also being clear when making a decision. I want to be sure there’s a sense of urgency, because terrorists try to come up with new and creative ways to harm us and we focus on preventing that.
What critical event led to you becoming the leader you are today?
There have been two defining moments. As a high school senior I was in a serious car accident and had a broken neck. I had an opportunity to think a lot. After a spinal fusion, and months in a body cast and a neck brace, I got back some physical strength and felt I was given a second chance. I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could for good. I wake up every day being thankful for being alive and able to give something back.
The second one was several months after 9/11. The FBI director asked me to help run the recently expanded counterterrorism program. I was unsure given my background was not in counterterrorism, but he had confidence in me and others I worked for, so I was thrown into a new milieu of national security counterterrorism work. That helped equip me for running TSA. It was really sink or swim, but, again, thanks to some great coworkers and mentors, I was able not only to survive but thrive.