The NY Times redefines 'lawless'

Having just returned from the US, I have very recent experience of the Transport Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security, so yesterday's Leader Column in the New York Times seems especially poignant.

The Times is condemning a Bush administration proposal that some trusted shippers should be allowed to conduct their own security screening of sealed packages being shipped by air. There is a legitimate concern that terrorists could attempt to ship timed explosives as air freight, therefore containers need to be screened. This is common sense and it is the law. But the Times describes the use of trusted contractors to undertake the screening as "lawless". They do not cite any clause in the law that requires TSA officials to do the screening. They simply seem to equate the use of private contractors as screeners with an absence of screening.

Of course, there are risks with the administration's proposals. A private contractor could be infiltrated or corrupted. But the fact that the proposal is not perfect is not sufficient reason to reject it. It would only be so if the use of government employees as screeners was perfect. The question is not which proposal is without risks but which poses fewer risks.

Nobody believes that the TSA is perfectly efficient and immune from error, infiltration or corruption.

Private contractors of government functions depend for their business existence on government contracts. Such contracts typically allow the government to cancel the contract or impose heavy fines if the contractor fails to deliver. This motivates contractors to devise innovative ways of delivering goals. Note, they are goal oriented, not process oriented. Government organisations typically have specific procedures which are inflexible and unchanging, and can thus be easier for terrorists to think their way around.

Private contracts are also easier to enforce. It is much easier for the government to terminate an agreement with a private contractor which is failiing than it is to dismiss its own employees when they are failing. Employee protection procedures and heavy unionisation of government workforces make it, paradoxically, easier for managers to manage workers employed by a third party than to manage their own employees.

The need to use private contractors would not be so great if the TSA was currently doing a good, or even tolerably decent, job, but it is not. It took me more than three hours to exit Washington Dulles airport two weeks ago and about fifteeen minutes to exit London Heathrow this morning. The three hours at Dulles did not include waiting for my luggage, which had been lost. (I am certainly not claiming that the private sector is immune from error).

It is true that at Dulles I was a foreign national and therefore in the slow line whereas at Heathrow I was in the fast line. But my wife (an American national) has similar experience, though not as extreme. Delays at American airports are not caused by heightened security. They are caused by incompetence. Most of the time (about two and a half hours) was wasted standing in line. This is solely because the TSA was not sufficently staffed to cope with the number of passengers arriving at that particular time. If staffing levels don't take account of when and from where planes are arriving, what are they based on? A deal with the union to maximise overtime payments, perhaps?

Private sector organisations cope with variable demand all the time. They have sufficient employees to cope with periodic surges in demand and ways of deploying additional staff to cope with unexpected fluctuations. This is all pretty basic management, and most businesses manage it without imposing three hour lines on their customers.

Bringing in private sector skills, not only to screen sealed packages, but also to process arrivals, is not only safer, but urgently required on grounds of basic competence.

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