TSA viral pat-down video raises two tough questions for all of government

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The Transportation Security Administration is in the spotlight again after a video that depicts a 13-year-old boy being patted down by an agent Sunday at the airport in Dallas, Texas. The video went viral almost immediately, and it has alarmed and outraged some people who believe the boy was subjected to unfair and improper screening. TSA responded Tuesday, posting a “Mythbuster” explanation of the incident on its blog.

I don’t propose to defend or prosecute TSA or the agent about the patdown itself. I don’t know the law, rules and policies that apply; and I don’t fly enough to know what’s “normal” and what’s not, and how often, or comprehensively, passengers are screened to the degree this boy was. But this incident prompted a couple observations that speak to bigger questions – and problems – the federal government, and particularly the federal workforce, have right now.

One is the tendency of government agencies to “turtle” when a controversy arises. Over the years, I’ve seen many instances of such events where the apparent response from the agency is that if it’s ignored long enough, it will go away. Unfortunately, the message that sends, even if only subconsciously, is that the agency has something to hide, or is actually guilty of something. Over time, that sentiment accrues to the point where people believe the agency, or all of government has many things to hide, and therefore can’t be trusted. Our last presidential election demonstrated many people are already well beyond the point of no return on trusting their government.

In the case of this video, though, TSA not only didn’t pull into its own shell, it jumped into the discussion. Within two days of the incident, and at the same time news organizations were featuring the boy and his family, the agency posted its response in a public forum, instead of just releasing a statement to the media and hoping it would be distributed (TSA’s blog is widely read, especially by frequent travelers who rely on its regular updates on travel rules and restrictions). The agency then distributed the link through its social media channels (I discovered it because I follow TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein @TSAmedia_LisaF).

TSA avoided two issues here that usually plague government agencies: 1) slow response and 2) no response. I’ll leave it to others to debate the veracity of the response, and the degree to which it addresses the concerns of the boy’s parents, but TSA obviously understands that no matter what happens, participating in the conversation when they’re talking about you is better than letting someone else totally dictate the discussion.

The other problem this incident brought to mind is the ongoing challenge of TSA’s – and, more broadly, DHS’sstatus as one of the worst places to work in the federal government. Over the years, I’ve asked many guests on both my radio and television shows whether DHS can ever overcome this challenge, given that there are so many jobs in the agency that are just plain difficult. The patdown itself, as depicted in the video, made me think again about the overall unpleasantness of some jobs at the agency. No matter what DHS HQ here in Washington does, no matter what morale programs it initiates, that guy – and many more like him – get up every day knowing that when they get to work, they will have to do what that guy had to do. I can’t imagine how it could be possible to dress that up in a way that someone would get excited about it, or be motivated by it; and I think if someone were excited or motivated by it, I wouldn’t want them actually doing it.

I and many of my colleagues in the federal government media space are quick to criticize and complain about agencies that decline to get out in front of even positive news stories. Whether you agree with the content of TSA’s response or not, the agency deserves credit for offering it and trying to spread it as broadly as possible. And maybe this incident will spark a discussion about setting real expectations for TSA’s ranking as a best, or worst, place to work in the federal government.