Research and development

DHS turns to old model for R&D

Officials hope new research and development centers will improve procurements and programs

Homeland Security Department officials need sound advice on how to make complex technology projects and acquisitions more effective. In many cases, they say, the solution comes from government-funded research and development centers, which officials are working now to expand.

The many forms of FFRDCs

Government agencies sponsor Federally Funded Research and Development Centers to fulfill specific needs. FFRDCs’ purposes span a wide range of complex topics. When agencies aren’t sure how to resolve an issue, they turn to the centers’ experts for help.

FFRDCs can take several forms to assist agencies.

  • Systems engineering and integration centers help agencies create or choose systems’ technical specifications, verification procedures and infrastructures.
  • R&D laboratories maintain long-term expertise in various areas of technology and help transfer new technology to the private sector. They also provide services not otherwise available.
  • Study and analysis centers provide independent analysis and consultation to the sponsoring agencies.

DHS officials hope to avoid costly contracts with ill-defined requirements, improve procurements and handle complex technology programs by making greater use of the centers, called Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs). The centers are modeled on the types of partnerships that government and academia developed in the 1940s.

The department plans to create two new ones — the Systems Engineering and Development Institute (SEDI) and the Studies and Analysis Institute (SAI) — for a total of more than $750 million over five years.

FFRDCs play a critical role in leading agencies to significant innovations in specific areas and are charged with giving agencies unbiased, objective and independent analysis and advice from leading experts who otherwise would not be available.

“We’re not civil service, but we are — in an ideal situation — inside the tent,” said Philip Anderson, director of the Homeland Security Institute (HSI), DHS’ congressionally chartered FFRDC. The institute receives about $35 million per year. “To put it in one sentence: We are there to help.”

SAI will replace HSI when the latter organization’s charter from Congress expires in April.
 
Government departments and agencies sponsor 38 centers, according to the National Science Foundation, which keeps a list of FFRDCs. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office said the government spent about $13 billion on the centers in fiscal 2006, which amounts to 14 percent of the government's R&D expenditures.

GAO cited NSF data and reported that funding for the R&D centers increased from $6.9 billion in fiscal 1996 to $9.7 billion in fiscal 2005.

Ervin Kapos, executive agent for DHS’ FFRDCs and director of the department's Operations and Analysis Division, said the centers represent a way for the government to get high-level technical talent to provide unbiased information. He said that input is important because it can be difficult to know whether contractors are working in the best interests of an agency or company.

The special relationship FFRDCs enjoy with government agencies is what makes them valuable, officials say. However, that relationship also requires special rules to prevent conflicts of interest.

Federal regulations detail the rules for the centers and demand that they be free of organizational conflicts of interest. In addition, sponsoring agencies and FFRDCs have rules that seek to prevent conflicts of interest at the employee level. However, some observers are concerned about the nature of those protections.

In October 2008, GAO said DHS and the Health and Human Services Department should review their policies for ensuring their centers avoid personal conflicts of interests.

“The avoidance of conflicts of interest is between the contractor — in other words, HSI or SAI or SEDI — and the government,” Kapos said. “There are adequate safeguards in place to make sure that there will be no conflicts of interest. The matter of personal conflicts of interest — in other words, for individuals within those organizations — is a matter between the organization and the individual. We monitor it to the extent of ensuring that the conflict-of-interest arrangements within the organization are adequate.”

“I think the biggest problem from a taxpayer and good-government perspective is just they are so opaque that there aren’t always sufficient protections against conflicts of interest,” said Mandy Smithberger, national security investigator at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a government watchdog group.

Raymond Haller, director of the Defense Department's Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (C3I) FFRDC run by Mitre, said agencies give the centers broad access to the government’s private information and confidential industry information with the understanding that the centers will safeguard it from misuse.

“We agree to protect that information, to not misuse it, to not use it for the purposes other than what it was intended for,” Haller said. “Those restrictions are in place for a sound set of reasons.”

In its report on FFRDC management, GAO cited an earlier report that the Office of Government Ethics had expressed concern that many policies are inadequate for preventing certain kinds of ethical violations by contractor employees. In particular, the ethics office cited financial conflicts of interest, impaired impartiality, and misuse of information and authority.

The issue of personal conflicts of interest at FFRDCs arose during the confirmation process for Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence. Blair was questioned in January about a 2006 report by DOD’s inspector general that found that he had violated the conflict-of-interest standards of the Institute for Defense Analyses while he was its president. IDA runs several FFRDCs.

The controversy stemmed from Blair’s decision to remain on the boards of two companies involved in a program that IDA was analyzing. The IG decided Blair did not influence or try to influence the analysis and that he had no substantial involvement in one of the institute’s studies and limited involvement in the other.

However, the IG said Blair should have disqualified himself from all matters related to IDA’s work on a program that could have affected two companies in which Blair had financial interests.

The incident resulted in IDA revising and clarifying its conflict-of-interest standards for employees, said Ruth Greenstein, IDA’s vice president of finance and administration and general counsel.

In addition to conflict-of-interest protections, federal regulations require periodic reviews of FFRDCs by sponsoring agencies and limit contracts for the centers to five years.

The government sponsor for DOD's C3I FFRDC recently reviewed the center. “That review answers the question: Is there a continuing need for the FFRDC, and has the institution that runs the FFRDC provided…value?” Haller said.

However, POGO's Smithberger said she is concerned that once an FFRDC is created, there could be pressure to keep assigning the center work regardless of whether it is fully needed. “It creates another stakeholder,” she said.

Kapos said SEDI represents an attempt by DHS to consolidate the many systems engineering task orders that other agencies’ FFRDCs handle. Officials said they hope the institute will help them develop improved and consistent technical data packages that will improve the department’s many procurement projects.

Meanwhile, DHS has been criticized for its management of several high-profile technology-focused projects, such as the Coast Guard’s Deepwater fleet modernization program and the Customs and Border Protection agency’s SBInet project to secure the U.S. border with Mexico.

The idea behind SEDI is to “make services available to [DHS agencies] very early on before things can possibly get well enough defined for a request for proposals” to be issued, Kapos said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Sun, Feb 15, 2009 Doug Samuelson Annandale, VA

FFRDCs are one of several responses to the problem created by Executive Order A-76, which requires the Government to allow the private sector to compete to do any task it could, all other things being equal, do as well as or better than Federal employees. The trouble is that repeated applications of this procedure can leave Federal agencies with too little analytical talent to assess the quality and value of work submitted under contract. This has, in fact, happened in many agencies, and FFRDCs are a way to outsource the assessment capability. Rules do exist, in fact, to prevent FFRDCs or their individual employees from introducing the more blatant types of bias and favoritism. What is missing is any process to prevent more subtle promotion of "groupthink" at the expense of innovation and genuine critical thinking. In particular, as good journalists know, the most insidious impositions of points of view occur not in how a story is covered, but in what stories are selected for coverage. The same phenomenon occurs in policy analysis. In short, the greatest danger from increasing reliance on FFRDCs is the chilling effect on new ideas. In this context, tighter rules about individual apparent conflict of interest tend to make this problem worse, as they exclude from the discussions more people who know enough to have something worthwhile to say.

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