Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Agency Slack and a Dysfunctional Agency: More on TSA

When arguing against a policy, one can focus on the principles involved or the costs and benefits of the policy.  What people generally overlook is implementation.  How are folks actually going to do the required activity?  Even more ignored is that the policy, whatever it is, will not be perfectly executed in reality, so one should take into account some room for error (deliberate or otherwise).  There are many problems with the patdowns that the TSA is now doing:
  • In terms of principles, how much privacy is worth sacrificing for illusive security?
  • In terms of costs and benefits, the questions focus on: how much does this slow things down and create more inefficiencies in travel?  Will it cause people to fly less?  Is flying less a bad thing?  How much greater will the budget of TSA need to be to hire more people to do more intensive screening.
  • What to do with kids?  The elderly?  People with prosthetics?  People who have been sexually abused?
What has been ignored is this: with the need for thousands of folks to do the screening, there will be a percentage of individuals doing the job that are too enthusiastic for whatever reasons (zealots about the effort, touchy-feely people, folks who get off on power and humiliating others, people who like using public power to get away with stuff they cannot).  There may not be hundreds of these people, but more than one?  Probably.  Once you get lots of people touching other people, you increase the odds that something will happen that is not supposed to happen. 

Principal-agency theory focuses on when agents do not do what the principals want them to do.  There are all sorts of ways to try to make sure the agents behave only as they should, including narrowing discretion (although no tolerance and zero discretion policies often mean agents do the wrong thing); lots of oversight (hiring watchers to watch the touchers), and rewards/sanctions for good/bad behavior.  But writing a policy that creates greater risks for error is a bad way to get the agents to do what the principals want.

Of course, in this debate, error can refer to letting explosives get through or it could refer to offending people and perhaps even violating their rights.  Who is over-reacting?  The government or the people who do not want to get groped?  Probably a bit of both, but the government is the first mover on this, so they should have anticipated some of this.

Instead, we get a wonderful TSA blog on the pad-down myths and facts:

Here are some myths/facts and my take:
  • Myth:  All children will receive pat-downs; Fact: children 12 years old and under who require extra screen will receive modified patdown.  Reality Check: What are the requirements for doing a patdown of kids?  What triggers the need for "extra screening"?  This better be pretty damned rare or else the policy will go down in flames.  And what is a modified patdown for kids? Personal view: I have a daughter who is nearly 15.  Pat her down?  I am not pleased with that idea at all.  Seems like no risk assessment has really been done.  
  • Myth: TSA patdown is invasive; Fact: only passengers who set off alarm or opt out of AIT [detailed scanner] receive patdown.  Performed by same-gender officers and a right to private screening.  Reality check: None of this actually says anything about being touched around the genitals and elsewhere is not invasive.  Just that it is necessary.  Necessary does not equal not invasive.  Oh, and lots of molestation is done by heterosexuals towards people of the same gender, so that whole same-gender officer thing is not terribly assuring.  And of course, unless TSA has a policy of asking people's sexual orientation....
  • Myth: Everyone who travels will receive a pat-down.  Fact: Only those who trigger an alarm in the detection machiens or opt out of the AIT (body scanner).  Reality check: Resistance to scanners is rising with uncertainty about radiation.  Plus I ended up getting frisked recently because the scanner was off-line.  Good times?
  • Myth: Complaints about the pat-downs are extremely high.  Fact: With 2 million flying each day in the US, the number of complaints is extremely low.  Reality check: with viral videos and an alerted media, one good/bad complaint is all you need to raise a ruckus.  Plus oversight by Congress tends to be triggered not necessarily by the quantity of complaints but by media coverage.  Oops!
  • Myth: TSA officers are sharing AIT images they are taking with their cell phones.  Fact: Our officers are prohibited from bringing electronic devices such as cell phones into the viewing room.  Reality check: So, they expect 100% compliance from their agents?  Good luck with that. 
  • Fact: Foods: Pies are permitted, but they are subject to additional screening if our officers see any anomalies.  Reality check: If the pie is so very tasty that it is an outlier, then it subject to tasting?
  • Myth: If you tip the TSA agent, they will give you a happy ending.  Fact Only sometimes.
  • Fact: TSA Humor is lame:  
    • Travel Advice for Tofu Turkeys: You are not real.
    • Travel Advice for Pilgrims: Leave your muskets at home and refrain from wearing clothing with large buckles.
  •  Good news: Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds
Inconsistencies: You may notice your screening experience at one airport doesn’t match the experience of another airport. We realize this happens, and some of it is intentional. While it can be a little confusing for our passengers, it also makes things unpredictable for those who might wish to do us harm. Our officers also can use their discretion in different scenarios that allows them to use common sense and not abide by a checklist mentality that can be studied and defeated by those who wish to do us harm.
 Yes, I am suspicious that some agents might be, for wont of a better word, perverts, but I do prefer that the folks in the field have the authority to use their discretion.

Lots of discussion about this stuff.  I have yet to see the phrase "letting the terrorists win" used recently, but we might want to consider whether panic-driven policies might not be the best way to go.  The government does face difficult tradeoffs, but investing in personnel would seem to be the right way to go.  Pay folks better, reward good work (including relatively satisfied customers), select/recruit more carefully, so that if you have to implement a troublesome policy, it will be executed carefully. 

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