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How the Transportation Security Administration’s mission-support offices used a customer focus to adapt to the pandemic

March 26, 2021

The Transportation Security Administration adapted to continue working during the coronavirus pandemic, despite the logistical challenges of a workforce spread across hundreds of airports. This successful response occurred because the TSA’s mission-support headquarters—which oversees the agency’s human resources, information technology, financial management, procurement and facilities operations—had already developed open communication with agents in the field, facilitating effective solutions to new work challenges.

The TSA’s communication gap

In 2018, mission-support leaders at the TSA identified that they needed to improve communication between its mission-support headquarters—the Office of Enterprise Support—and agency staff scattered across the country. “The disconnect between the field and headquarters was long-standing,” said Kimberly Walton, executive assistant administrator for enterprise support at the TSA.

New policy directives or operating procedures designed to increase efficiency or reduce costs were often impractical in the field. In these cases, TSA agents would have to alter the new policy to fit their needs or simply comply with a clunky process.

Focusing on the customer experience to improve mission-support services

In response, Walton and her team of mission-support leaders began visiting airports across the country to hear employees’ perspectives on TSA mission-support services. “They were saying, ‘That policy might look good on paper, it may be very logical, but it’s not operationally feasible in my environment, and if you had asked, I could have told you that it would not work,’” Walton said.

In turn, the Office of Enterprise Support established advisory groups that enabled field agents to help executive leaders shape and design new policies, and communities of practice, which provided opportunities for local mission-support staff to learn from their colleagues at headquarters. New internal websites and recurring conference calls also helped the office maintain open lines of communication with local agents.

The pandemic: adapting to new conditions

These connections enabled the TSA’s mission-support offices to adjust to the realities brought on by the pandemic.

The TSA’s IT office, for example, talked to agents in the field to learn how the pandemic had affected the typical in-person bidding process for work schedules. Using this input, the office launched an app that enabled agents to choose shifts on their phones. The office also conducted user testing and created training materials for the app, consistently keeping their customers—the local TSA agents—front and center.

In another example, the Office of Enterprise Support’s procurement office gathered extensive and continual feedback from local agents as it decided which types of personal protective equipment to purchase during the pandemic.

Throughout the last year, the TSA’s Office of Enterprise Support connected with staff in the field to design pragmatic solutions to their biggest challenges. According to Kimberly Walton, this work offered a valuable and essential lesson: “You can’t do a methodology without involving the customer.”

To read the TSA case study, as well as other stories describing how mission-support offices have used a customer focus to help their agencies solve big problems during the COVID-19 pandemic, check out our research report, “Behind the Scenes.”

This post is authored by Will Butler, an intern on the Partnership’s Communications team.