The Struggling Airport
As the long-time Director of Customs and Security at Big City International airport you have learnt to cope with criticism. Indeed, the airport may be the most criticised in Australia! This, of course, is not unique. In many countries, customs, immigration and security controls have come to stand for the ultimate in mindless delay and red tape. On a slow news day reports can visit the airport and write yet another story about inconsiderate bureaucrats and outraged travellers, either citizens or visitors to Australia.
The most obvious symbol of the airport’s problem has for many years been the length of the lines at the security and immigration checks. Although passengers often have all the documents they need to depart the country there are still long waits as documents are checked. In most cases, 4 out of 5 passengers, the checking of documents is straightforward. Some travellers though will have complicated documentation and reviewing this will take much longer time.
Not that they are always long. In the mid-afternoon, it's possible to arrive at the airport and not have to wait more than a few minutes.
But travellers who come in at 7:00 a.m. or mid-morning are in for a long and frustrating experience that leaves them cursing the airport and questioning what the government is doing. Traveller’s arriving face long waits for taxis and public transport.
Several years ago, Customs and Security possible for people with less complicated documentation to proceed through automated document checks. That turned out to be a big help. Still, many travellers and citizens simply don't read the information on what they need to bring when organising a journey. Thus, some of the problems are the customers' fault. People often arrive at the terminal unprepared. Some don't bring the necessary paperwork. All too often, when a terminal employee explains to a citizen or visitor that they must join a different queue many become upset and at times confrontational.
This unpleasantness is contagious. When a citizen or visitor who failed to read the advice they have received with their ticket blames his problem on an employee, the employee reacts with predictable indignation. Indeed, terminal staff have developed a well-practiced repertoire of responses to the most common complaints. The employees are prepared for obnoxious citizens and visitors, and citizens and visitors are prepared for obnoxious employees.
And the facilities don't help either. Most of your “service” centre areas reek of bureaucracy: walls painted a dull grey; lighting that is inadequate; chairs that are wearing out.
Still, when people complain, they complain mostly about the lines. And, they complain a lot. They complain to the terminal and airline staff. They complain to the newspapers. They complain to their member of parliament. And they complain to Ministers in the State government and they complain to the Ministers in the federal government. The Prime Minister’s office deals with a steady stream of protests about the terminal, and indeed airports across the country. In any given month, citizens may write more letters to the Prime Minister about a legislative fight or a critical policy issue. But on an annual basis, the airport system and the Big City International Airport in particular manage to log a very high proportion of complaints on government service delivery.
Like other organizations in both the public and private sectors that conduct a variety of predictable and repetitive tasks, the airport has employed technology to streamline processes, simplify tasks, cut staff and reduce operating costs. Whenever you introduced the latest computers or processes, you inevitably uncovered technological and human challenges. But your staff has been able to work out both kinds of challenges relatively quickly. Thus, you have already taken advantage of the technological improvements that are most obvious, easiest to implement and promise the biggest impact. But the airport is no more popular than before all of the changes and modernizations took place.
The bottom line is that technology cannot solve your problem. The core of your work is human-to-human interaction. Even when a citizen or visitor is fully prepared to travel with tickets and any additional fees paid as part of the interaction remains personal.
The new Minister for Immigration and Border Protection knows that the airport has significant operational problems. She also doesn't want to spend any significant time or money dealing with them. Her priorities are economic development, not micromanaging the airport.
Nevertheless, she well recognizes that, before her government stands for re-election, many voters will have some experience of airport and the wider air travel network. She doesn't want them seething with anger and blaming their frustration on her. Thus, although you, as the Director of Customs and Security at Big City International Airport you know the Minister’s office has made it clear that you have a less than year to produce some real, improvements or your department and the Minister will find another person to take on your job!
What improvements do you make? In responding to this question make sure you draw on theories of public sector management.
Source: Adapted from a case by Bob Behn, Harvard Kennedy School o