Managing from the get-go

With all eyes on the massive border entry/exit system, Homeland Security Department officials are developing an equally robust plan to manage the process.

Officials are working to build a strong management structure even before the first pieces of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) system are released. Without this organization, the aggressive and far-reaching program risks being a flop, officials said.

"What we need to do to be ready is to leverage what we have today and build up the talent so we have that management capability," said US- VISIT Director Jim Williams. "The capacity to manage is paramount."

Last summer, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge approved the structure for a program management office with a staff of 115. Williams said he is in the process of staffing the office, which will be supported by 177 contractors. Officials are working with PEC Solutions Inc. and Mitre Corp.

"There's a bit of a philosophy behind it," William said of the management structure.

DHS officials will be looking to private industry to expand the management office with the expected release of a request for proposals next month for a prime integrator, a contract the vendor community is eagerly awaiting.

The chief strategist is one position to be filled. The position would manage the program's vision and ensure it is linked with the department's strategic plan, Williams said. The chief strategist would also work with the US-VISIT advisory board that will govern the program.

By Dec. 31, officials expect to have US-VISIT in place at all seaports and airports, with the use of biometrics.

"US-VISIT is sort of a vision compelled by these different laws today," Williams said. "We want to do the right re-engineering to come up with a better business process."

By concentrating on the program's management structure, DHS is building a partnership with industry, and both sides will share accountability for the program's success.

PEC, for example, is helping with the operations concerning the first increment, such as project schedule development, risk management, creation of overarching processes and budget document preparations.

DHS officials will rely on help from vendors, but agency officials will maintain control, Williams said. "I always believe you can outsource anything you want, [but] if you don't maintain internal capability to manage, you probably won't be successful."

The challenge of deploying such a large system is not the technology, said Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc. and a former Air Force senior procurement executive. "Every failure of a major system development I have ever looked into, I have yet to see it be the technology that failed the part," he said. "It's almost always the management issues."

Steve Furman, vice president of business systems for Robbins-Gioia LLC, a consulting firm that focuses on program management, said more agencies are taking the time and energy to build strong management structures.

For such major homeland security systems, deadlines are often mandated by legislation, he said, which adds external oversight.

Mapping a clear management framework gives agencies a view into every level of their systems, so that when Congress or auditors have questions, agencies have the answers, Furman said. This is the difference between insight and oversight, he said, and with such large-scale programs, managers need a grasp of each level of work.

The challenge is establishing an infrastructure when there is not enough information to complete it, Furman said. "You're building a race car, and you're really not ready to race it yet," he said.

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Assignment for the managers

The program management office of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system will tackle managing the following areas:

* Strategy.

* Mission operations.

* Information technology.

* Meeting deadlines.

* Facilities.

* Budget and finances.

* Outreach efforts.

* Acquisitions and programs.

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