Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSA's Original Sin: Deciding Not to Communicate

Bad leaders tend to be bad communicators. A decision made with the best of intentions can fail if it's not communicated well to key stakeholders. Lost in the rage about new TSA security pat-downs and body scans is that TSA is not an agency that is being led well. John Pistole is head of the TSA and he's both a bad leader and bad communicator.

Pistole admitted that it was his decision not to inform the public about the new security procedures. He called it a "risk-based" decision that kept terrorists from knowing what the TSA was doing, where they were doing it and to whom they were doing it. Pistole even admits he ignored advice to communicate.

The terrorists who wish us ill are adaptable and clever. They seek to exploit weaknesses. It seems an easy solution to limit public information so that weaknesses can go unexploited. Keeping terrorists off-balance by not telling the public basic information probably sounded like a great plan in the meeting room in DC. It stood little chance of success.

Since there's this thing called the internet and people use it to communicate in real time, Pistole was able to keep the new pat-down procedures quiet right up to the time that TSA began to implement them on real human beings. Unless his goal was to prevent a terrorist attack the first two weeks in November, his plan had no chance of succeeding except in pissing off a substantial part of the flying public.

Pistole also told reporters that he planned on educating the public after most of the rollout of the new procedures was complete. Except you can't educate people when they are furious with you. One of the best blogs about flying is Flying with Fish. Author Steven Frischling has a complete breakdown of where the full body scanners are and how likely people are to be subject to the new scans. Great context to be sure, but this is the kind of thing TSA should have posted on its website before it rolled out this program.

TSA could have been communicating these important changes to the public and kept the appropriate amount of operational vagueness to keep bad guys off balance. In fact, I bet TSA has dozens of communicators that advised doing just that. Why not let them do their jobs? The decision not to communicate has created a huge distraction for the frontline screeners. Now, they gird themselves every day for verbal assaults from the people they are trying to protect. One can argue that probably makes them less effective at their job.

With one decision Pistole failed twice. He alienated a substantial portion of the public and made it less likely his frontline people will succeed in their primary mission.

Communicating this change effectively may not have prevented the backlash. Not communicating until it was a crisis made everything worse.

Why exactly does he still have his job?

Bill Salvin

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