Remarks at Seton Hall University School of Diplomacy and International Relations

Administrator Peter Neffenger
South Orange, N.J.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
As Delivered

Thank you Mo, and thank you to Seton Hall for inviting me here today; Dean Andrea Bartoli;  Father Brian Mozas; our Master of Ceremonies Francesca Regalado; Associate Dean Elizabeth Halpin and Assistant Vice President Daniel Nugent.

I also want to recognize Dennis Egan – from Rutgers University; Dr. Peter Forster – from Penn State University; and, of course, a hearty welcome to all the folks from TSA who joined us here today.

I like telling the story of TSA. And I hope that as you listen, you’ll set aside your own notions of who and what we are, and maybe come to understand and share my excitement.

Earlier this year in speaking to the challenges I found at TSA, I talked about identity – about who, and what, we are.  I said that our transformation began by changing the way we define ourselves. We said out loud and collectively that we were security professionals, working in an intelligence-driven, agile, adaptable counterterrorism agency focused on the security of our nation’s transportation systems. We all retook the oath of office. We learned that changing how we defined ourselves changed everything.

Today I’d like to continue that story – by telling the next chapter and highlighting how that renewed sense of identity allowed us to become more innovative and entrepreneurial.

A Shipping Story

But I’m going to start with another story – one from my maritime background. 

Malcolm McLean was one of seven children of a North Carolina farm family growing up during the Great Depression. Starting with a used truck he bought to help his family get goods to market, he eventually built the fifth-largest trucking company in the United States. So, that’s interesting, but not the story I find illustrative. 

Here’s the one I like: One day Malcolm McLean was sitting in one of his trucks on the docks in Hoboken, New Jersey, waiting, and waiting, to transfer his truck’s contents to a ship, and watching as the longshoremen loaded cargo net after cargo net moving a few boxes at a time to the ship's hold.  It was driving him nuts – he thought it would be a lot easier to just pick up his truck trailer and load it straight onboard. That simple, disruptive thought stuck with Malcolm McLean for 20 years and, in 1956, he made his idea a reality and, standing near those same docks, watched as the very first container ship – his ship – filled with shipping containers set out to sea.  That voyage spurred the complete transformation of the shipping industry.

There are a number of useful lessons from this story, but here’s the one I like – and how I choose to view what Malcolm McLean did. He wasn’t just looking at an inefficient process for loading ships – it was certainly that – I think what McLean saw was that the way in which ships were loaded was a crippling component of an otherwise efficient system of transporting goods from origin to destination – a system that had become dramatically more efficient through improved highway infrastructure, warehousing, larger and more reliable conveyances, and the like. 

To most people the system worked well enough, because most people only think about their individual piece of the system. Longshoremen were doing what longshoremen always do. 

Now I didn’t know Malcolm McLean, but I think he instinctively understood that the real mission – the “job” – was to move “stuff” from origin to destination safely, efficiently and effectively. Trucking companies like his were part of a vast and interconnected system. He transformed the system, because he understood the system.

Transforming TSA

Like Malcolm McLean, TSA had to understand that we, too, were part of a vast and interconnected system, and that our actions directly affected the security, efficiency and effectiveness of the entire transportation system. We had to understand our real mission; our true purpose; and why we exist.

When I got to TSA in July 2015, I found an agency in crisis and under intense scrutiny. There had been testing failures, allegations of questionable management practices and it was disconnected from the industries and public it served. Indeed, TSA’s public image was largely that of long security lines punctuated by a uniformed security officer at an airport checkpoint.  TSA, for many, was the agency that got in your way and intruded upon your travel.  

We are the retail face of government, and you have to pass by us if you want to travel on an aircraft. We examine your things, we examine you and sometimes we even touch you physically.  

I found an agency that to a large extent had adopted this image and one that had become inured to criticism -- in fact, one individual said to me during an early briefing, "Boss, you have to understand that people don't like us -- it just comes with the job". We were hunkered down, disconnected and resistant to change. We had become the things we do.

But I also found dedicated people, some with many years of service to TSA – some had even been at the agency since "rollout", the wonderfully evocative term used with justifiable pride to describe the herculean and quite remarkable effort to stand up a nearly 60,000 member organization in mere months. 

Think about the task they faced 15 years ago:

  • Replace a disparate, disconnected system of private screening contractors at nearly 450 airports across the country with a federal workforce, without interruption of operations.
  • Establish security oversight for every mode of transportation – aviation, rail, transit, over the road buses, maritime, and even pipelines. If it moves, protect it.
  • Picture people in borrowed offices working long hours sketching on note pads the thousands of things needed to create an operating agency out of whole cloth.
  • Do all of this in the anxious, uncertain months following 9/11, when it seemed as if the next attack would happen at any moment. And in fact almost did in December 2001, when an individual attempted to detonate the explosives packed into the soles of his shoes on a flight from Paris to Miami. 
  • This job was serious business. The system had failed, and they had to fix it, and fast. Under intense pressure, they had to be innovative and daring. And people from all walks of life – the private sector – airlines, airports – the military, the FAA, indeed from all across government – all came together to do something that had never been done before.

We needed to recapture that spirit of innovation and daring. We needed to reconnect to the sense of purpose and mission that had energized TSA’s “rollout”. That’s easier said than done – there’s a lot of resistance to doing things differently. Traditionally, government nurtures the status quo, whereas, entrepreneurial thinking points in a new direction and thrives on change.

But, as the Malcolm McLean story illustrates, we needed to get past entrenched thinking in order to see ourselves as part of a larger system – in our case one that ensures the security of our Nation.

To do so, we needed to overcome the tendency for large organizations to get locked into a set way of doing things. 

Think about an operating agency, which is what we are. We have to do something every day – just like the longshoremen working on the docks. There’s little incentive to change because the status quo works well enough and we have an entire internal system built to support it. We’ve invested a lot in the system. It’s comfortable and predictable – and changing it would be hard and disruptive.

TSA screens some 2 million travelers every single day, and we have a lot of process built around that.  But TSA is much more than passenger screening – that’s simply one of many activities that we do. 

What we really do is secure a vast, complex interconnected global transportation system that underpins our economic health and in the United States employs one out of every seven workers.  

And we don’t, and can’t, do this alone. We don’t own the system. Airlines, airports, rail operators, transit providers, trucking and shipping companies, pipeline operators, other government agencies, travelers and many more are key players and co-owners in the security of the system. It turns out that our mission includes aligning all of those elements to work together with us to keep the transportation system operating efficiently and securely.


So, where did we begin? 

First, we had to figure out how to begin to drive change. It starts by finding the change leaders in your organization and giving them permission, encouragement and support. Here’s an example:

TSA had no centralized, coordinated or consistent approach to training. But training is the foundation of mission success and a powerful tool in galvanizing and leading change.

It provides consistency, develops a common culture, instills core values, improves morale, and it increases performance – something we needed to do in the wake of legitimate concerns about TSA. 

So, I asked a lot of questions about training. As it turned out TSA had a creative training and development team that had a solid plan to build a full-time, resident TSA academy that would provide consistent, disciplined and professional training across the workforce. But, budget cuts, internal bureaucracy and organizational inertia had stymied the plan and we were years, if ever, from seeing its realization.

But, I liked the idea of an academy – it was innovative and forward-thinking, and it addressed many of the challenges we were facing. I asked if we could accelerate and put it in place in three months.  In other words, I asked my team, “If I give you permission and support, could you do it now?” 

No joke; they came back later that day and said, “Yes”. Of course, we still needed money, a place to build it and approval from the Administration and Congress – but assuming we could get that, we could have our academy.

So we went to work, we built our case, got support from the President and Congress and three months later - last January to be exact – we established the first-ever full-time TSA Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers in Glynco, Georgia. 

The key point here: We found talented and creative people within and then gave them permission and support to be entrepreneurial, to take risks, and then, from the top of the organization, aggressively drove the change. 

And, interestingly, as we transformed training, we reconnected to our mission and that, in turn accelerated our thinking about how we could drive change across our agency.   

We’ve used this approach over the past year and a half to stimulate innovation and reconnect with the entrepreneurial spirit of rollout.  But, changing processes and systems wasn’t enough.  We also needed a way to continue to grow and sustain the effort.   

Here’s how we’re moving down that road.

The Innovation Task Force

At the busiest airports, we needed a faster means of moving people through the checkpoints given the year-over-year dramatic increases in the number of travelers moving through airports.  You all remember the long lines in airport security. These long lines were more than just an inconvenience and frustration – they were a real security concern. 

Large crowds in public places are attractive targets for terrorists. I know, I had just arrived at Brussels airport when suicide bombers killed 32 people and injured over 300 more. I witnessed the aftermath. So, moving people more efficiently into secure areas was more than a convenience to travelers, it was a security imperative.

We had an intriguing opportunity – automated screening lanes that were already in operation in London and Amsterdam. These seemed like a pretty good idea. They could move people faster through the checkpoint at the same or better level of security effectiveness – although in a year over year cycle of tight budgets, a daunting number of airports in which to invest, and a slow and cumbersome federal acquisition process, introducing these would not be easy.  

There was also a fair amount of resistance – we’d need new procedures and training. But I was determined to find a way to do this.

It was clear that our interest aligned perfectly with the airlines. We had already begun to change our relationship with them from adversarial to collaborative. We were partners in security, and that opened new opportunities. They needed us to be more efficient and effective in moving their customers through the checkpoint and we needed to do so for the reason I just mentioned, but without compromising security. 

So I wondered, what if we could work with the airlines to buy a couple of these automated lanes – just as a pilot project? 

I floated the idea, and Delta was the first to take a chance and fund our experiment. They bought two lanes, installed them in Atlanta and gifted them to the federal government – a true public-private partnership. We established an Innovation Task Force to manage the project.

Now here’s the amazing part: We went from idea in March to implementation in May – just nine weeks – not years – and these lanes do, indeed, move people more efficiently. Our officers love them, and travelers like them.

Today several major airlines are pitching in with millions of dollars – United, American, Delta – and we’re installing automated lanes in major airports around the country. You can see them right now not far from here at United’s Terminal C at Newark Airport.

Turns out this pilot project became a catalyst for innovation throughout TSA. It also taught us that we needed an incubator for innovative and entrepreneurial ideas. Remember, an operating agency is focused on its everyday activities and processes, you can’t mess that up, so we needed a place in which to surface, examine and nurture change, and then introduce it into operations.  So we formalized the Innovation Task Force as a permanent entity – we assigned creative, thoughtful and energetic people from within TSA. We partnered with the private sector.  

We also wanted the Task Force to be a receptacle for new and creative ideas from the outside.  The Task Force’s job is to reimagine the system and become a driver for innovative, entrepreneurial thought – to ask the questions, “How can we evolve the transportation security system to meet the threats and challenges of tomorrow?” And, “How can we weave security into the very fabric of the system in the same way that safety has been integrated into every aspect of transportation?”

The Threat Environment

So why is all of this important – all of this talk of innovation and entrepreneurship? Because today’s threat environment is more dynamic and challenging than ever before. There are very real, persistent and continuously evolving threats to transportation – this past year alone we saw the detonation of explosives on aircraft above the Sinai and Mogadishu, the airport and metro bombings in Brussels, the attack at Istanbul airport, and the tragic attacks in Paris, Nice, San Bernardino, and Orlando. Terrorist groups and individuals remain intently focused on doing us harm and they are creative, determined, adaptive and ruthless.

Lessons Learned

So, what are the lessons here?

First, know your mission: The core mission that everyone needs to be connected with. Like the janitor at NASA who said when asked what he did – “I help to put a man on the moon.” That’s connection to the mission!

Second, no one person is the change. You need to look within the organization and identify those talented, creative and experienced folks that are ready to embrace a new way of thinking. Many will not be receptive, but there will be a core group of daring, risk takers ready to take the plunge and follow you. Then give them the permission and the cover they need and you’ll be stunned by the results. 

I had a mentor years ago who once said to me, “Don’t stand and point to where you want to go, just go there! People will follow.”

Third, in evaluating an organization’s shortcomings and failures, there is a strong temptation to blame people – don’t. It’s generally the system that fails. Put your faith in the people, and they will help you fix the system – in fact they will show you the many pathways. In my experience, very few people, if any, wake up in the morning and say, “Gee, I wonder how I can screw up my job today?”

Fourth, find some quick wins in order to show the rest of the organization what’s possible. Our innovation task force, our training academy and working with the airlines to install automated lanes are significant actions. Those early wins showed the organization that we can change, and that change can be good.

Fifth, if you find yourself in crisis, resist the instinct to just survive, get through it and move on.  You need to run to the crisis and embrace it! A crisis surfaces important information about an organization that allows you to address and implement long-term solutions. A crisis may be traumatic, but it often is a necessary shock to the system and can lead to meaningful, effective change. 

Finally, you have to be daring. Being afraid to take risks is actually the riskiest position because it fosters a static approach that exposes vulnerabilities no matter what you do for a living.  Malcolm McLean put the industry that made him millions at risk, but in doing so, he transformed that industry. 


So today, I see TSA differently from when I arrived. 

It’s interesting. As I was going through confirmation, there were a number of people who warned me that TSA was an agency in trouble with low morale. They said it had an impossible mission, and that it was in many respects, unmanageable.  Some even said it couldn’t be fixed. I just didn’t believe that. As I said earlier, people don’t fail, systems do – and systems can always be fixed. 

TSA has been charged with an enormous responsibility to protect our nation’s transportation systems – what we do matters.

To be sure, we are not yet where we need to be, but we know where we’re going. We are a good and proud agency, and we have changed dramatically over the past year and a half. We’ve done that by aggressively examining and questioning ourselves, by reaffirming our identity, by understanding our true mission, by reconnecting and collaborating with the industries and the public we serve and by becoming innovative and entrepreneurial.

So here’s what I’ll leave you with:  Know your mission – the real mission. And then, no matter what your role is, know that you, too, can drive change. You, too, can be creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative – you just have to be daring. You just have to take that first step. 

And give people permission and support.

And, please say thank you to the Transportation Security Officers who keep you secure.

Thanks again for inviting me here, I look forward to our discussion.