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Given all of the recent controversies and articles related to ongoing operational problems at TSA and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), there has been a significant amount of talk about something that is of intrinsic value and practically unquantifiable—time.

It’s something that we all have but never have enough of, and whenever it is wasted, either standing in line or for some form to be completed or process completed, frustrations understandably grow. When frustration grows too much, we get understandably angry, and that is where we are at today with two federal agencies that serve the public.

At TSA, they are charged with safeguarding the travelling public and commerce from those who would do them harm via multiple means of transportation.

At the VA they are tasked with fulfilling the charge of President Lincoln in his second inaugural address, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan….”

Both are difficult, complex and costly jobs, and today, both of those government operations rank towards the bottom in terms of public satisfaction for how they fulfill their respective duties.

Tens of thousands of Americans are waiting to be properly served by the government their tax dollars support. Whether it be the thousands of passengers who have missed their flights because of long screening lines, or the thousands more veterans who are still unable to get the timely healthcare treatment they need following their military service.

Now, there are many metrics for scoring an organization’s performance. TSA regularly posts on its blog how many firearms and other weapons it seizes at the nation’s airports. The VA has a whole section of its website that details various reports and measures it is using to assess its performance. What is apparent in both organizations, however, is the little public value they put on time.

Recently, VA Secretary Robert McDonald made some comments at a breakfast session with the Christian Science Monitor that have only added to the firestorm of criticism of his Cabinet Department. When questioned why the VA was not tracking the time between when a veteran requests an appointment and actually gets one, he said: “What really counts is how does the veteran feel about their encounter with the VA? When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? What is important is, what is your satisfaction with the experience.”

I’m more than sure he regrets uttering those words (as does his press shop), but the truth is that time is a more than valid measure of performance. While he’s right that satisfaction with the experience is important, the time we spend trying to do things (or rather, not being able to do things) is a HUGE performance measure.

The TSA Administrator is feeling the heat of that pressure in countless ways already, so I decided to take a look at how others measure wait time performance. Here’s what I learned:

  • If you want to head to Disney World or Disneyland as the VA Secretary mentioned, you can download an app for your phone to tell you how long your wait for a particular ride or attraction might be.
  • If you have an urgent health matter in northern Virginia, the INOVA network of hospitals posts its average emergency room wait times online, so people have an idea of how quickly they will be treated.
  • If you need a ride some place and call for an Uber or Lyft, your phone will display how quickly that vehicle will be there to pick you up.
  • Even the beleaguered DC Metro system has the courage to display the wait times for the next train arrival on the stations.
  • If you’re at Costco, BJs or Sams Club, (or most other supermarkets and retailers), and there are more than 5-6 people in check-out lines, you’ll find managers opening other registers to take care of their customers.

Now, the above examples might be trivial when comparing them to the seriousness of passenger screening and delivering necessary healthcare services, but it goes to the fundamentals of customer service that seem to be completely foreign to the operations of TSA and VA.

Government is not a business by any measure, but constituent service is something politicians of all stripes recognize and remember if they want to stay in office a bit longer. That’s why it is not unusual to hear and see them express outrage over TSA and VA wait times with their fist-pounding promised fixes. But that is a political Pavlovian response to any problem that generates news coverage.

Effective customer service is more than delivering satisfaction with the experience, which for TSA is a safe and secure trip and for VA, the delivery of effective healthcare services. It’s also about RESPECT. Time offered, used and spent is an unrecoverable investment, and when it is wasted or treated carelessly, it says an awful lot about those who choose to disrespect its value. And there is little doubt that the traveling public and our veterans deserve far better than they are getting.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More
  • cksand

    After 13 years, I can tell you it is mind over matter. They don’t mind and you don’t matter. It is only when TSA gets an alligator biting their butt. do they care.
    Neffinger should have cleaned house, but instead kept the the same crew that undermined the previous administrators.