The Transportation Security Administration might be America's least favorite federal agency. For every discarded 4-ounce bottle, dropped laptop or missed flight, a furious traveler stands ready to heap abuse on the next TSA employee he sees. And it is the job of Bob Burns, official TSA blogger, to take it.
"Do I get beat up? Oh, yes, definitely," Burns says. "You have to have thick skin and realize that people do need an outlet to vent and get rid of frustrations."
The Transportation Security Administration's blog, Evolution of Security, is everything the TSA is not — lighthearted, informative, responsive and devoted to the needs and concerns of its customers. It may also be the best model for government to engage citizens over the Web.
Most agency blogs — and they abound — are little more than a collection of glorified press releases. But then there's the TSA blog — www.tsa.gov/blog — and a handful of others that actually change the way you look at government. One way is fostering genuine reader interaction. On any given day, Burns may answer questions about formaldehyde, tin mint cans, frozen monkey heads, pie, exploding chickens or scabies.
Original research is part of the job: When some travelers missed their flights last year because their MacBook Airs looked suspicious under an X-ray, Burns created a video explaining why that's the case. After that, security officers — many of whom read the blog — knew what to look for.
Burns once wrote a post consisting entirely of poultry puns. Goofy as that was, his blog works because it has actual power. When Evolution of Security commenters complained about having to remove all electronics from carry-on bags during screening in certain airports, the TSA put a stop to it. When they kvetched about long lines, the agency created a new express-lane program.
(They don't take all suggestions. One commenter asked TSA to focus more on invisible supernatural terrorists. Another suggested that the agency ban nail clippers on flights so passengers don't get hit with stray clippings.)
The direct line from the comments section to the top brass isn't just good business; it also builds goodwill.
Which brings us to the other function of a good govblog such as this one: damage control. When TSA officials detained a Ron Paul organization official in March for carrying too much cash — he was transporting $4,700 in contributions — the blogosphere went nuts. More embarrassing was a recording of the incident: The man asked whether he was legally obligated to answer questions, to which one TSA official replied, "You want to play smart--s, and I'm not going to play your f---ing game."
The TSA blog responded with a staid, press release-y item: "The tone and language used by the TSA employee was inappropriate. TSA holds its employees to the highest professional standards. TSA will continue to investigate this matter and take appropriate action." Normally, Burns signs his posts with the jaunty moniker, "Blogger Bob." This time he played it straight: "Bob." "What I wanted to say was a little bit harsher," he told me. "But that's what was approved."
Commenters railed against Burns and the TSA for the limp response. "Bob, will the TSA tell us what the results of the investigation and any actions taken against the employee?" asked one. "Or will this just be swept under the rug?"
But at least these complaints were being lodged not with a faceless entity but with a guy they knew and, for the most part, liked: Bob. And because he had spent so much time building trust, many commenters gave him the benefit of the doubt. Said one: "It is unusual these days to hear any organization admit that it, or its employees, did something wrong. TSA's official statement above does exactly that. Kudos to the TSA for having the courage to say so." Burns thus serves as a lightning rod — he attracts criticism, but he also helps ground it.
And if there's one thing the TSA experiment has shown, it's that engagement doesn't sacrifice authority. It enhances it. President Barack Obama has made a point of increasing transparency through new media: How about a secretary of blogging?
Christopher Beam is a Slate political reporter.