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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On “National Opt-Out Day,” Healing the TSA’s Relationship With The Public

(Note: I work for a component of the Department of Homeland Security,
but am writing this post independently.)

Today's Washington Post
(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/23/AR2010112306822.html)
covers "National Opt-Out Day," a citizen protest day against the
current scanner/patdown policy that is scheduled for today, the travel
day before Thanksgiving 2010. Basically, they're going to jam the
lines purposely.

The weather is supposed to be bad in some parts of the country on this
busy travel day, so the fury on both sides could rise to significant
heights if a lot of people start missing their flights.

Some key facts and statistics as backdrop:

• There are 400+ imaging machines at 70 airports
• Imaging takes less than a minute
• A full body patdown takes twice as long (or more) as imaging
• 50% oppose patdowns (today's USA Today says it's "nearly 6 in 10")
• 32% oppose the scanners (USA Today has it at 42%)
• Roughly 1 million patdowns so far under the new (more intrusive) policy
• ~ 2,000 complaints filed

The collective sentiment of the "experts" interviewed for the article:
The opponents of the policy are uninformed, "fringe." Today's protest
is "going to be a huge bust," said one.

I find myself wondering what planet these experts are on. They don't
seem to get – it hasn't penetrated their brains – that public support
is critical to the effectiveness of government policy. It doesn't
matter if they're right and the public is wrong. If you alienate the
people you are trying to protect, you will not be able to protect
them:

• There is nonstop citizen coverage of this issue on the Web, from
YouTube to the Drudge Report to Twitter
• 600,000+ people have visited the "We Won't Fly" protest website site
in 2 weeks
• There are opt-out events planned for 20 airports today
• College students in Phoenix are going to hand out radiation
registering devices and gloves for TSA officers today
• San Francisco will see a passenger-rights group monitoring the TSA
with ABC's Nightline
• There will be a demonstration in Philadelphia

Mainstream media news has picked up on citizen interest in this issue,
running a seemingly endless series of stories. There have been Senate
hearings on it. Even Saturday Night Live parodied the TSA situation in
a truly funny skit last week.

The bottom line is, there is a schism between what people are thinking
and feeling about this issue, and the attitude of those promoting the
policy.

Interestingly, I don't see evidence of a bad attitude in TSA
leadership itself. TSA Administrator John Pistole consistently shows
empathy and sympathy for the traveling public.

• In an interview with CNN, he took responsibility for the horror
story of a traveler whose patdown left him covered in his own urine in
public, even noting that the TSA had reached out to him personally and
that the traveler would be providing training to the officers in the
future.
• Pistole's comments to the Post also focused on the experience of the
traveler. He didn't say how "right" he was, but rather said: "If large
numbers of people do intentionally slow down that process, I don't
think we can avoid people not making their flights on time," he said.

Pistole's communication team also has shown a commitment to being
responsive, reacting to the public on the TSA blog and participating
in discussions at government-centric websites such as GovLoop.com.

Clearly something has gone awry when you care about the public and are
trying to help them, but the public doesn't trust you to do your job.

I think there is still time for TSA to make something positive out of
this whole situation and recapture the public trust. Here are some
suggestions:

• Post, transparently, as much information as possible about all the
concerns that the public is expressing. These fall into two
categories: the effectiveness of the patdown procedure, as well as the
machines, as versus other security methods; and possible incorrect
influence of others on the security decisions.
• Post interviews with experts both in favor of and against the
current policies on the website.
• Host a town hall to engage citizen concerns, then transcribe and
release the results.
• Allow travelers to video or audiotape their inspection
• Engage the officers in sessions to discuss their thoughts, feelings
and concerns and implement their suggestions in the airport
environment
• Produce volumes outreach materials that respond to passenger
concerns and place them visibly in the TSA area of the airport
• Reach out to the most visible of opponents and discuss their
concerns directly

The bottom line is, just because you listen to your opponents, doesn't
mean that you agree with them or will do as they say.

It all goes back to credibility. If your audience sees you as
trustworthy, they will give you permission to do what needs to be
done. But if they see you as abusing your power, they will ultimately
thwart even the best of security policies.