TSA has big shoes to fill

When Patrick Schambach, chief information officer at the Transportation Security Administration, leaves his post, he will be missed, many people say. But he's made sure the agency will get along without him.

His departure comes at a time when security is a big issue for the nation's airline travelers and as TSA officials cope with the urgency of using technology to prevent another terrorist attack.

The 32-year public service veteran is stepping down from his post May 31 to join PEC Solutions Inc. as general manager in charge of the company's civilian federal sector.

Although his expertise will not easily be replaced at an agency that did not exist three years ago, Schambach has left safeguards to ensure a seamless transition for his successor.

"I've had this trajectory in mind for a long time," he said. "I've tried to put a lot of effort into succession planning — not just a person taking my place, but preparing the shop for operating in my absence. I tried to be very careful about not leaving a void."

Schambach is credited with building TSA's information technology infrastructure from the ground up to help agency officials tackle the daunting task of screening millions of airline passengers before they board flights.

He is best known for awarding a billion-dollar network support contract to Unisys Corp. in 2002, a move that drew governmentwide attention because it was the most sweeping application of TSA's Information Technology Managed Services (ITMS) contract in the federal government.

Greg Baroni, president of Unisys' global public sector, said the colossal contract would not suffer any disruption or delays because of Schambach's retirement.

"Pat was effective in setting up a succession line," Baroni said. "He's got several people in the wings [who] can carry the operations forward, people who understand the vision and philosophy and operation cadence of the ITMS contract and the work he was doing on behalf of TSA."

One such understudy is Joseph Peters, who will become the acting CIO when Schambach leaves at the end of the month.

Peters said the agency is ready for Schambach's retirement, and he already has taken over many financial aspects of managing the contract.

"It's going to be difficult to replace that level of experience," he said. "We've got a great management team within our office of [IT]. I'm pretty confident that we'll manage through this transition. Pat's our CIO, and [ITMS] is really his program."

No one has surfaced as a shoo-in for the position, but many are eyeing Peters as a likely successor. "I would be honored to fill a pair of shoes as big as Pat's," he said. "Someone is going to have their work cut out for them."

Baroni said Peters and Schambach were "hooked at the hip, heart, brain."

Schambach does have restrictions regarding how much he can work with TSA after he leaves because of federal ethics rules, Baroni said. "It's unfortunate because it actually ends up putting the government in a bind in the short term as it seeks to recover from the loss" of Schambach.

Attrition in the federal government is inevitable and raises the question of how the newest federal mandate of homeland security will be able to cope as other experienced managers leave.

"At one level, this happens all the time," said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institution. "Some of these high-profile and high-intensity positions you have a limited tenure."

Nevertheless, Ornstein said the Bush administration has had trouble filling top jobs at the Homeland Security Department. One reason may be that the "resources they ought to have are not there, including technology," he said.

In an interview, Schambach said a natural turnover will occur at DHS because the department has been operating now for two years at top speed. "Yes, some people are tired and need that break," he said. "Some people are attracted to the start-up mode, and once it's not a start-up, they are anxious to go onto other start-ups."

Others are starting to leave as well, including some who spent three decades in government and signed onto DHS or related agencies, bringing their information technology expertise with them and capping their federal government careers.

Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc., said two circumstances are likely for future turnover at TSA.

As a start-up agency, he said, TSA has attracted entrepreneurs who are more likely to leave the agency than become devoted to the day-to-day operations of it. This kind of turnover, which Mather said also occurs in the private sector, should be encouraged because it lures a special kind of talent. The second reason for loss of personnel is burnout.

"The number of hours and the intense pressures have been significant, especially at TSA," he said. "For the first year and a half

it was seven days week, 10 to 14 hours a day. It was the hardest-working group of civil servants I have ever had the pleasure to work with. They were true patriots, but you can't continue that forever."

"Look, this department is still getting its sea legs," said David Marin, the House Government Reform Committee's communications and policy director. "The hierarchical structure is still loose, and with that, you get departures born of disillusionment. People's roles remain somewhat blurred, and only institutional maturity will bring stability."

"Some will leave out of frustration over their inability to achieve their goals overnight," Marin said. "Others will leave for better-paying, plentiful opportunities in the private sector."

But Alan Balutis, president of Veridyne Inc., disagreed. He said that the immense challenges of fine-tuning TSA and DHS can actually be "quite rejuvenating" for workers.

"You are working hard," he said, "but clearly there are people who are getting a great sense of reward and fulfillment. Those are the kinds of things that sustain you."

Schambach's deepest legacy will be the partnership between government and industry he created and an ability to use the strengths of both, according to Lee Holcomb, DHS' chief technology officer.

"If you look across the various agencies or bureaus that make up DHS, using industry in the way Pat did is not a common thread throughout the department," Holcomb said. "There are substantive parts of the department IT that can benefit from partnering with industry in a way similar to the way Pat set up ITMS. Not all the department would share that view, and that's what makes life interesting."

Mather said Schambach was "the prototypical visionary leader who grasped what we were trying to do, made it his own and was willing to take the risks involved." Faced with a monumental task and only about 150 people to execute it, Schambach recognized that he would have to rely heavily on contractors, Mather said.

"He wanted to stop buying seats and start buying heads," said Mather, meaning that Schambach wanted to capitalize on expertise and technology.

So how did Schambach champion the relatively new idea of ITMS across the entire agency's massive network?

Mather said that Schambach "knew that the essence of managed services is that if the contractor fails, [he has] failed. So how do you work with the contractor to ensure that we're both successful? He was the right man at the right time. TSA would be in nowhere as good shape without him."

NEXT STORY: Reps. seek biometric delay

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