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Investigating federal programs to make sure public dollars are spent wisely

For the past five years, federal watchdog Steve Lord has been looking at airport body scanners and baggage screening equipment differently than most of the traveling public, focusing an objective, critical eye on airport security systems and machinery, and informing powerful people about what he sees.

Lord, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) director, has helped evaluate multi-million dollar passenger, baggage and air cargo screening programs run by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), including the canine teams that roam airports sniffing out explosives.

TSA spends billions of dollars a year, so it’s critical that GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, oversees how effectively the agency runs its programs, Lord said. “The agency plays a critical role keeping airplanes secure and finding terrorists. It’s up to GAO to find if the money is well spent and, if there are gaps, where do they exist,” he said.

That involves examining programs, people, processes and technology, he said, GAO’s watchwords. Sometimes, agencies are reluctant to hand over information that can help Lord’s team evaluate a program.

“Agencies balk on giving you data,” he said. “You know they have it but they’re sensitive when GAO shows up on doorstep.

GAO Director Steve Lord (Government Accountability Office)

During his time overseeing TSA, Lord has become known as an aviation expert, involved in security investigations that raised questions about several issues: whether TSA’s behavior-detection program was based on reliable science that could be applied on a large scale at airports; whether TSA should better vet foreign nationals getting U.S. flight school training to learn how to operate an aircraft, and if vulnerabilities exploited by the 9/11 hijackers were fully addressed; and if the agency’s 800 body scanners were effective and fully utilized.

The body-scanner investigation thrust Lord and his team’s work into the public eye almost daily after President Obama pushed to deploy scanners at airports, and debate raged over whether the scanners would have caught the passenger on a Detroit-bound jetliner who allegedly attempted to set off explosives hidden in his underwear.

Over the course of his nearly three decades at GAO, Lord became highly knowledgeable in several other areas, by reviewing security assistance and reconstruction programs around the globe and helping oversee other federally funded programs in Europe and Russia.

His work involves a lot of time analyzing data and talking with agencies.

“Sometimes data doesn’t exist and we’ll collect ourselves” said Lord, who has testified before Congress 14 times during the past two years.

That means going into the field and “kicking the tires,” he said, adding that it’s important because the perspective in Washington can be different from that of the people on the ground implementing programs. For example, when the Department of Defense higher-ups talked carefully about their rebuilding programs in Iraq, construction workers on site gave Lord important additional information.

When giving objective advice on security to TSA to help the agency understand how it can strengthen some of its programs, GAO is serving as an “honest broker,” Lord said.

“We don’t always tell them what they want to hear, but its stuff they need to hear,” he said.

Lord and the people he manages produce solid and substantial work because he recognizes their strengths and motivates them to do their best, said Cathy Berrick, managing director of both Homeland Security and Justice, and Forensic Audits and Investigative Services, the team Lord is transitioning to now.

“He’s very creative,” she said. “He looks at issues and problems from different angles and perspectives and has excellent judgment. Quality is always top priority for him.”

During one recent investigation, Lord and his team determined that TSA could do a better job of managing the National Canine Program, which uses teams of explosives-detection dogs to screen passengers and baggage. In the January 2013 report he signed off on, the GAO found that canine teams were not complying with monthly training requirements, and were deploying passenger-screening canines before determining their effectiveness in some cases.

“They were collecting really good data,” Lord said. “They should better use the data on where to deploy teams.”

Lord began his GAO career as an intern before joining an international affairs team that focused on embassy construction and U.S Aid for International Development programs. He served for three years in the agency’s office in Frankfurt, Germany, in the early 1990s.

He made five trips to Baghdad to inspect U.S.-funded programs to rebuild the country’s electricity, oil and water sectors, which involved billions of dollars. In 2008, he was deployed to Baghdad for three months, living in the Green Zone with a few thousand other Americans. He actually worked in one of Saddam Hussein’s “very-well fortified” palaces, where he noticed chandeliers made of plastic, a lot of shoddy construction and faulty electrical wiring.

Inspecting the quality of the palace was not part of his official job. But looking closely at his surroundings is just something Lord seems to be used to doing.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about more federal workers who are making a difference.

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