How the Transportation Security Administration raised its HR to a new level.
By Dirk Olin
Richard A. Whitford was ruminating in late February about fallout from the so-called Christmas bomber. Two months earlier, an allegedly would-have-been killer, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had grabbed international headlines on December 25 when he ignited plastic explosives with a syringe sewn into his underwear as Northwest flight 253 prepared to land in Detroit. “That’s why this job never stops,” said Whitford, 64, sitting at a conference table in his plain, but spacious, corner office at the Transportation Security Administration in Arlington, Virginia. “So now we are in the process of deploying new technology and bringing on new people. We call it ‘the surge.’ ”
A surge is hard to imagine for an operation that already hires or replaces 12,000 employees annually. But for Whitford, TSA’s assistant administrator for human capital, personnel shifts are more than a matter of reading resumes and checking references. In the wake of the Christmas attack, for example, yet another new wave of urgency is informing the agency’s HR operations. The next phase of hires must include candidates who can become proficient in operating the likes of backscatter X-ray technology, millimeter wave sensors, neutron bombardment machines, or quadrupole resonance devices. And, although Whitford demurred from criticizing other countries or agencies, his is a world in which domestic security can be dependent on the aptitude of a CIA station chief in Yemen or a bag checker in Amsterdam. That places even greater pressure on the details of TSA hires and protocols.
“So beyond the new technology,” he said, “we’re also advancing recruitment and training of behavior detection officers. That requires teaching the use of discretion, not a checklist mentality. It also involves sourcing inside and outside the country, and it’s a complicated process.”
Of course, hiring into the TSA has been a complicated process ever since the birth of the agency. Created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to federalize security at 450 airports nationwide, the TSA executed the largest and fastest outsourced onboarding in history. The agency brought on more than 60,000 employees in its first year, most of them transportation security officers (TSOs). To do that, the TSA had to move beyond what was then the typical government model—farming out a couple or three processes—to a system of comprehensive outsourcing. That meant that contractors handled almost every aspect of HR. It was a historic series of HRO engagements.
To be frank, a lot of people were making it up as they went along. They had no choice. Korn Ferry filled the brand new openings for 150-plus Federal Security Directors, overseers to roughly 50,000 airport screening personnel. NCS Pearson began the process of screening and hiring the TSOs, but that contract soon went to Accenture HR Services and CPS Human Resources. Unisys provided IT infrastructure, IBM consultants could be found throughout, and, in an engagement that would prove to be a harbinger of today’s arrangements, Lockheed Martin oversaw training.
Famously, the TSA turned to other providers that were not exactly associated with, say, explosives detection technology or Facial Recognition Software. Crowd management? Who better than the theme park managers from Disney. Luggage movement logistics? TSA went to FedEx. And for advice on how to surround the “high-touch” process of search and surveillance with a level of customer service that could mollify potentially offended passengers, the agency received the assistance of Marriott, Nike, and Southwest Airlines. (“May I help you with your bags, madame? My pleasure. Now hands against the wall and feet back, please.”)
Whitford recalled that the crazed and improvised logistics of those early days were leavened with “patriotism.” As he put it, “It really couldn’t have happened without that level of emotional commitment from a lot of different people.”
Those days of heady patriotism and ad hoc organization-building have now given way to a new maturity. The agency that began by depending on collaboration from outside HR experts—throughout the private sector and the federal government—is now in many respects an industry leader.
Which has not been achieved by standing still.
In August 2008 Lockheed Martin outbid Accenture for renewal of a $1.2 billion contract to run TSA’s Integrated Hiring Operations and Personnel (IHOP) Program. Over the projected eight-year term, Lockheed Martin is slated to create solutions to support the recruiting, assessing, hiring, paying, and promoting of all TSA employees. According to Whitford, cost savings contributed to the change, but not in numbers that will necessarily be realized up front. Some are achieved in out years through incentives for improved performance. So that was not the main driver in the decision. “It was Lockheed’s use and application of technology, the sophistication of their solutions,” he said. “It was about efficiency and productivity.”
Less than a year later, in June 2009, Aon Consulting (the global human capital consulting organization of Aon Corporation) received a subcontract from Lockheed Martin. Aon was to provide recruitment strategy and strategic communications solutions as well as candidate assessment and selection tools in support of this contract. Under the accord, now called HR Access, Lockheed Martin’s team will develop and deploy an advanced HR system as well as provide the people and processes to manage TSA’s HR services.
The contract begins with a six-month transition period, which will be followed by a one-year base period. TSA then has the option to renew the contract annually for up to seven additional years.
At the time of its signing, IHOP was reportedly only the fourth such contract with a total value worth $1 billion or more and the first federal government deal of its size. The overall scope partly explains why Whitford expressed no concerns about the decision by Lockheed—which presumably had been hired for its expertise in delicate, high-tech staffing—to subcontract to Aon. “We don’t worry about that,” he said. “For that matter, Monster job search is part of that, too. Our concern is with the SLAs (service level agreements) and the PFP (performance for pay) metrics, and they’re all in line.”
Whitford, a Maryland native, has been in public service his entire professional life. A graduate of Loyola College in Baltimore, with a master’s degree in political science from Brown University, he was working on a Ph.D. in government at Johns Hopkins University when he decided to “work in the real world.” After nine years teaching in Baltimore County high schools, he landed a job as a training specialist at the Census Bureau, moving on after two years to the Navy’s HR department. Over 15 years, he worked in classification of jobs, recruitment and hiring, benefits, labor relations, and employee relations. Then, during the Clinton administration, he joined the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which actually generated a government business that sold OPM services to federal agencies. (TSA has a small OPM contract now.) In 2002, he learned of the need for an HR leader at TSA, and he jumped at the chance.
Whitford said that both staffing and evaluation had evolved significantly since 2002. “We’re much more quantitative than we used to be,” he said. “Customer service is always at the top of our concerns, so we measure that. And time organization. Our folks are doing more than running machines, too, so we have to develop their investigative skills. The sophistication of our intel briefings and that kind of knowledge overall is a major change.”
But given that Whitford oversees a workforce whose members are not always sitting in front of computers, how are services delivered? “Our line workers have breakroom kiosks, and they can phone or access assistance online from home, too. We have web tools, including an HR Access help desk. Each worker has a personal page. We offer life care and child care and senior care assistance, and a concierge approach, so that a worker can have the same contact person over time.”
Other key initiatives include giving part-timers health benefits at a level that matches those of full-timers. (A TSO who works at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that even the most jaded government workers acknowledged that the benefits shift impressed them.) Whitford also trumpeted the agency’s response to its workers’ requests for foreign language instruction. “We now have almost 50,000 signed up to receive a Rosetta Stone license, and 20,000 already taking Spanish,” he said. That has come on top of agency logistical and financial support for TSOs to study for an associate’s homeland security degree in order to advance their careers.
Beyond those programs, he said that the agency’s awards and promotions, which had been “dammed up” for some time were now very close to being on schedule, and that worker’s compensation costs had dropped in the past 18 months by roughly 30 percent. He became especially animated in describing how he had engaged line managers to be part of both the external recruitment and internal promotions to augment what he called the “career evolution process.” Combined with a performance bonus program, he said, the result was a measurable drop in TSO attrition (see chart) to its “lowest point ever.” (Separately, Whitford declined to address the sensitive subject of TSA unionization.)
So aside from the obvious concern about another shoe bomber or underwear bomber or article-of-clothing-to-be-named bomber, what keeps Dick Whitford up at night? “Not being able to meet our hiring targets and making sure people get paid. Nothing will destroy morale faster. It used to be that we would have a few hundred people with check problems per pay period. But we’ve ironed out some problems, and we also have the concierge who acts as your junk yard dog. So the pay problems are now in the single digits, and sometimes even zero. You know when you’re solving these things, because your rate of email declines.”
With concerns ranging from life-or-death technology training to paycheck dependability, then, Whitford professed to complete and utter engagement with his work. “It’s the existential stuff,” he said, “it’s all about the existential stuff.”