A Conversation with TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger: Promoting an Entrepreneurial Spirit within the Government
Despite a long, dedicated and decorated career in the Coast Guard, where he rose to the rank of Vice Commandant, Peter Neffenger is now in charge of an entirely different organization with a global reach and responsible for the daily safety of millions of people: the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Often maligned as an agency struggling with operational discipline and low employee morale, Administrator Neffenger sees these challenges as opportunities to overhaul how TSA is viewed by the traveling public and how TSA agents view themselves and their mission. “I came in on the heels of a report that said that the TSA wasn’t performing great,” Neffenger said during an interview with GBTA Executive Director and COO Mike McCormick during GBTA’s Annual Convention. “This last year we focused on three areas of improvement. We needed to get better, we needed to be better with our resources and we needed to change the system, which had been the same for a long, long time.”
To that end, Administrator Neffenger pointed to several recent successes – such as opening a TSA Training Academy to overhauling the Agency’s entire operating model. While instilling an entrepreneurial spirit throughout an agency of close to 60,000 employees is challenging, that is what drives Peter Neffenger in his drive to change how TSA operates and the perception that the traveling public has of the agency. “I brought some of the Coast Guard’s thinking to the TSA,” Neffenger said. “Now we start at the mission and work backwards. We have seen dramatic improvements… The TSA has had some challenges in its past, but if you have read about it or heard about it, we have already addressed it.”
Part of the new entrepreneurial spirit comes from Peter Neffenger himself, while part of it comes from empowering TSA agents and learning from other security services around the country. In a drive to eliminate the TSA’s “one-size-fits-all mentality,” the Administrator pointed to pilot programs currently underway at airports across the country. One in particular is the automated lanes that have been rolled out at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport. “We have seen a 30 – 40 percent improvement in throughput in those lanes,” he said. “It is just one of the ways we are looking to reduce friction to the traveler…We are always looking for new ways of doing business.”
One topic that was of great concern to the GBTA audience was the TSA’s PreCheck system, which has grown from roughly 4,000 sign-ups a day when Peter Neffenger took over to about 20,000 a day now. “The GBTA has been a huge proponent and partner in this initiative,” he said. When asked where he though the PreCheck system was headed, the TSA’s Administrator said he was thinking globally. “Ideally, I would like to get everybody into a trusted traveler system. It should ultimately be a global system so travelers don’t have to shop on five different government websites to find the right program for them.”
While TSA Administrator Neffenger feels that his agency is headed in the right direction, he is cognizant that there is still work to be done. “It is a stressful and adversarial interaction by nature, so the more we can get away from that, the better. When I came in, I found an agency that was in chaos and under fire, and we are starting to move away from that. We are literally on the front lines of how citizens interact with their government.”
Asked what prompted him to leave his life and career at the Coast Guard to lead such a maligned agency, Peter Neffenger pointed to the fact that, despite its recent woes, the TSA is an agency, “with a great and important mission and I wanted to help reform it.”