Another TSA Battle Brewing, This Time Over Privatizing Airport Security (Part 2)

As I reported earlier, the latest TSA-related controversy is whether the agency should expand a program that allows airports to contract out security screening to private firms.

Image Credit: Tim Beach

The debate is mainly about costs: the TSA claims privately-operated screening is more expensive while the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure asserts that it costs significantly less. As I outlined in my previous post, there are problems with both estimates, especially the House Committee one, so for now I think the jury’s still out on the cost question.

I can’t believe I actually have to say this given that we’re talking about airplane security, but I don’t think money should be our primary consideration here. I don’t care which type of screening is cheaper if it doesn’t keep me safe (or if it involves extensive groping and general disregard for my desire not to be groped). Previous TSA studies only took a limited look at screener performance and the new House Committee study doesn’t analyze performance at all, probably because it is difficult to measure.

Here’s why we need to nail down a comparison of private and TSA-managed screening performance before we even start to look at costs:

With goods and services that are simple to measure, such as providing garbage pickup or manufacturing license plates, it’s easy to determine how well a government agency or private contractor is doing the job and at what cost. When the good or service in question is a complex one like education or healthcare, measuring success is much more difficult and it’s harder to hold an agency accountable for the quality of services it provides.

The performance measurement problem plays out differently for government agencies and private contractors. Government bureaucracy can hinder innovation and responsiveness, as we saw when the TSA refused to respond to public anger over invasive screening techniques. The million dollar question in that debate was a performance measurement question we didn’t have the answer to – was the TSA keeping us safer (i.e. performing better) by doing the screenings? If we had hard data showing that the answer was no, these screening techniques would already be gone.

When private firms provide publicly funded services that are difficult to measure, the problem has less to do with bureaucracy and more to do with profits. Government agencies have a tendency to operate up to their allotted budgets, while private contractors try to kept their costs as low as possible to maximize profit. When it’s hard for us to hold private firms accountable for their performance, their incentive to skimp on costs is greater. This is why privately-run prisons have encountered so many problems and, as the LA Times reminds us, it’s part of the reason the TSA was created in the first place.

The question right now shouldn’t be whether or not to privatize airport security screening. It should be how we can really measure performance of this task. Once that is determined, we can analyze whether private or TSA-managed screeners perform better, and factor in other concerns like cost and political ideology.

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