Sprehe: Finding a balance

Who is counting the cost of all the increased security in federal buildings? It is easy enough to add up the price of extra uniformed guards and concrete barriers that are multiplying outside federal agency buildings. Beyond the obvious expenses, though, every time a civilian has an appointment in most federal agencies, an employee must leave his or her desk, walk to the building security desk and personally escort the visitor to the appointment. And then escort the visitor back to the exit after the appointment.

That scenario is repeated thousands of times every day throughout government.

Are agency officials tallying up the cost of lost productivity in the time that employees — often senior-level managers — are spending escorting visitors? Do they have any idea of the bill taxpayers are footing for this massive distraction from carrying out the government's basic business? And what about the effect on employee morale?

Contractors must go through security clearances to do business with many agencies.

Apparently, agency officials do not trust their own security checks because in many cases they still want to escort contractors through the building and even to the bathrooms.

Surely cheaper ways are available to solve the problem. Given the popularity of outsourcing, why make employees perform escort duty when rent-a-cops could do the same job?

For an even cheaper solution, agencies could organize their retirees into a volunteer corps who could escort visitors to and from their appointments with agency employees.

At one agency I visited recently, visitors walk unescorted to their appointments once they pass building security, but the doors of all offices and other rooms are kept locked unless their occupants are present.

The basic principle of security is that measures should be commensurate with the risk and magnitude of the harm that could result from security breaches.

With officials wasting employees' time on escort duties, you have to wonder if anyone is doing any hard thinking about the risks and magnitude of harm building visitors represent.

Certainly, it appears that no one is weighing the risks and magnitude of harm against the costs to taxpayers of lost productivity.

I have seen no evidence that officials at the Office of Management and Budget or anywhere else are evaluating such costs, let alone analyzing their impact on agency productivity and mission performance.

One suspects that agency officials would rather not know because they would not be able to justify the costs.

None of us wants a terrorist strike on a federal building. By the same token, none of us wants agencies to waste millions of dollars on unnecessary and thoughtless security procedures.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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