27
Tue, Feb

From Homelessness to Homeland Security: The Troubling Parallels of Failed Public Agencies

LOS ANGELES

iAUDIT! - A few months ago, the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights asked me to prepare a report on the many failings of L.A. County’s homeless services agencies.  The report shockingly details how badly the County has responded to the homelessness crisis. More to come on that. 

People often ask me how City and County agencies can fail so gravely at homelessness intervention while avoiding accountability.  Some suggest the many failings are proof of corruption or cronyism. They are usually a bit shocked and disappointed when I tell them such poor performance, even at the stunning level we see in Los Angeles’ homeless agencies, is not unprecedented in government, and it has nothing to do with corruption.  Many public agencies have failed just as badly as L.A.’s homelessness organizations. One such agency with troubling similarities to Los Angeles is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). 

If there is an organization that rivals Los Angeles’ homelessness agencies’ record for a history of unmitigated failure, it would be the TSA. In internal and external audits and reviews, the TSA has failed at everything from allowing almost 95 percent of fake weapons, bombs, and contraband through airport  checkpoints, to insufficiently inspecting airport security infrastructure. Like its LA counterparts, the TSA never seems to be able to overcome its weaknesses. And like the City and County, TSA leadership consistently insist the agency serves a vital function, is really a success, and promises to make “game changing” program modifications. 

The inception of the TSA shares the same ill-conceived origins as organizations like LAHSA and the County’s Homeless Initiative.  The TSA was created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.  As we now know, the biggest failure of 9/11 was an appalling lack of  communication and coordination among federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.  Because of interdepartmental rivalries, siloed work, and general inefficiency, several organizations had bits of information that, had they been properly combined and analyzed, would have alerted authorities an attack was imminent. However, the Bush Administration, like our local leadership, was loathe to admit it failed at the fundamentals of its mission; instead of holding those responsible for the intelligence failure accountable and reforming existing processes, the US government created a behemoth new department, Homeland Security, which was supposed to unify and coordinate security operations within the United States.  One of the offspring of Homeland Security was the Transportation Security Administration. 

Before the attacks, airport security was a hodgepodge of local private and public providers of varying skills and abilities. The TSA federalized airport security and was supposed to provide consistent high-quality training to its screening officers and other personnel.  In reality, many of its new hires came from the ranks of former private security providers, many of whom lacked the ability and training in new security procedures and technology.  Instead of addressing security officer performance as a management issue, the TSA created one rule and procedure after another, until it became mired in a smothering blanket of overlapping policies.  All this was taking place as the new Department of Homeland Security was trying to define its role in protecting the country. 

It should come as no surprise that given its rushed roll-out and lack of planning, TSA has had persistent and systemic problems fulfilling its mission.  Just a few examples: 

  • In 2015, a field test from Homeland Security’s Inspector General found TSA screeners missed 95 percent of false weapons, bombs, and other security breaches in airports throughout the country. 
  • Another test in 2017 found the failure rate “improved” to only 70 percent. Notoriously, TSA leaders at first tried to stifle release of the test results for “national security reasons”. 
  • Between 2007 and 2015, TSA spent $900 million on its Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program. The program was an attempt to emulate more effective agencies in other countries that rely on a relatively small cadre of agents trained to spot behavioral patterns indicative of criminal intent.  However, the TSA program was hobbled by charges of racially profiling passengers and using scientifically invalid screening methods. Since its inception, the program has caught only a handful of suspects, and most of them committed relatively minor infractions. 
  • In 2021, the GAO issued a report critical of TSA’s contracting practices for security technology. GAO auditors found  the TSA repeatedly contracted with the same vendors and failed to properly enforce contract requirements. 
  • Since its inception, the TSA has been criticized for its lack of training. A 2018 GAO report said security officer training lacked a focus on performance and agency goals. Poor training has also been linked to complaints of discrimination and harassment against passengers, and high officer turnover. 
  • The GAO and security experts generally criticize TSA for its one-size-fits-all policy of treating all passengers as potential criminals. Instead of data-driven screening using behavioral indicators, intelligence and other information to focus on high-risk passengers, tremendous human and monetary resources are dedicated to ponderous screening procedures which are unnecessary for the vast majority of travelers,. The TSA defends its procedures as fair and equitable, which is true in the sense it makes the security process equally miserable for everyone. 

None of these issues would be so serious if they resulted in positive outcomes.  But in more than 20 years of its existence, the TSA has yet to demonstrate it has had a measurable effect on transportation security.  Part of the problem, of course, is that it is very difficult to measure the impact of events that didn’t happen. But TSA cannot statistically demonstrate its procedures are any more effective than what came before, or what it could do differently.  The statistics it does share are merely workload indicators: the number of weapons found, or the amount of prohibited substances confiscated. Even those statistics are undermined by the high number of illicit items smuggled through checkpoints during security tests. 

These failings have led even the most sober security analysts to call TSA procedures nothing more than “security theatre”, a derisive term for valuing the appearance of security while doing little or nothing to provide it. 

One could make the argument that L.A.’s homeless agencies practice a form of homelessness theatre. Consider the similarities to the TSA.  Organizations like LAHSA and the County’s Homeless Initiative were created because the City and County couldn’t coordinate their activities, (and after 30 years of failure, LA’s City Council is finally considering appointing one department to lead its homelessness prevention programs). These agencies have scant evidence of a measurable effect on homelessness despite huge outlays of money and resources. 

LAHSA’s failings are strikingly similar to those of the TSA:

 

  • Just as the TSA tried to withhold the results of 2017’s disappointing security test, LAHSA didn’t release the results of its February 2023 PIT count until November, and then tried to spin the disappointing numbers in as positive a light as possible. 
  • The TSA has spent billions to protect passengers but has little to show for it other than a string of poor performance reports from the GAO and its own Inspector General. Likewise, the County has spent billions of Measure H and other funds for homelessness prevention, including housing, but unsheltered homelessness continues to increase.  
  • The TSA’s performance statistics do not measure its effectiveness at preventing criminal attacks on transportation infrastructure.  Indeed, for every weapon it confiscates, security tests indicate at least eight more get through. Similarly, LAHSA, the City and the County pump out a steady stream of service statistics that tell us little about their actual outcomes. LAHSA’s 2023 PIT count claimed it increased interim housing availability and placements (slides 31 and 33), yet unsheltered homelessness rose by 14 percent (slide 15).  In the slide on housing, where LAHSA claims more people have been housed than in 2022, there is a tiny footnote admitting some of those counted as housed may be repeat clients, meaning the same person may have been counted multiple times.  Mayor Bass claims to have housed or sheltered 21,000 people, but because of poor tracking, the number means nothing.  It is conceivable the count is comprised of 2,100 people cycling through the system 10 times. 
  • Just as the TSA’s contract management is questionable, so are the City’s and County’s contract practices. Many shelter management contracts are granted without bidding to the same small cabal of underperforming corporate nonprofits. The L.A. County Auditor criticized LAHSA’s contract practices in 2018 and 2020.  
  • The TSA’s one-size-fits-all approach to security mirrors Housing First’s one-size-fits-all approach to homelessness.  While the TSA treats most passengers as suspects, Los Angeles treats most homeless as people who just need housing.  Housing First ignores the reality that many of the unhoused are victims of untreated substance abuse or mental illness.  Most funding goes towards housing rather than services, denying those in need of the support they require to successfully reintegrate into mainstream society.

Among the things I’ve learned from a career in performance auditing is that bad management shares a set of common traits: denial of failure, defense of the status quo, ill-defined goals, an obsessive adherence to process over results, overwhelming and oft-conflicting rules, low employee morale and high turnover, and superficial commitment to effective change. It doesn’t make any difference if the agency is local, state or federal.  

Some people may think Los Angeles’ homeless agencies are uniquely incompetent or corrupt. The truth is far more mundane. Inefficient organizations have a way of imposing their characteristics on leaders and employees, no matter how sincere their motives may be. Soon, leaders find themselves supporting failing programs for reasons of ego, retaining power, defending their administrative turf, or the inability to recognize inefficiency. 

The other universal truth about bad performance is that change rarely comes from within.  A performance auditor’s job is to describe the necessary changes. But executive management or elected leaders must accept the need for change, unless it is imposed upon them by a higher authority.  Sometimes, that higher authority are the voters themselves.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)