Agencies struggle with flood of homeland tech

Federal agencies are still sorting through the wide range of technologies that industry hopes will meet the government's homeland security needs, according to officials at the Industry Advisory Council's (IAC) Executive Leadership Conference last week.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, companies already in the federal market — and many more new to the market — have been offering agencies solutions for everything from information sharing to biometrics. But while some agency officials have been able to organize those offerings for later review, most have found they do not have the time, resources or expertise to cull the most useful solutions.

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the response from industry was "a little overwhelming," said Rose Parkes, FEMA's chief information officer. Not all of the solutions fit immediate needs, but FEMA officials were concerned they might lose track of solutions that could fill future requirements.

The agency set up a database with all the information from vendor offerings, market research and responses to specific requests for information. When new requirements come up, officials first search the database to see if solutions have been offered that could fill the need.

"If the requirement is there and the information isn't, then there's no match," Parkes said.

FEMA is one of the 22 agencies and organizations designated to move to the proposed Homeland Security Department, and agency officials know that the information held in the database possibly could help others.

"As we move into the new department, we will absolutely share the information," Parkes said.

Officials involved in setting up the proposed department also recognize the need to work with industry to find useful solutions. "We need to provide some guidance and direction about where we need help," said Steve Cooper, senior director for information integration and CIO of the Office of Homeland Security.

Once Congress passes the bill to create the department, "we can pick up the pace [on that guidance] significantly," he said.

FEMA's database could also help the Office of Homeland Security evaluate solutions already in place at the state and local levels, Cooper said.

The database, however, does not solve a more complex problem that agencies are facing. Many, even those with comparatively large information technology budgets, do not have the ability to understand and evaluate "edge technologies," said Scott Hastings, CIO at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

There has been talk about creating a center within government to evaluate new technologies, but officials also hope industry will help weed through ideas before they get to the agencies, Hastings said. For instance, established federal contractors, which have greater resources and expertise than most agencies, could sort through offerings from smaller or less experienced vendors, he said.

There is also the concern that in the flood of ideas, agencies might not be finding the more innovative solutions available because there are many companies that simply do not know how to work with government.

All too often a company pitches an idea without fully understanding the federal contracting process and expects that agency officials will be able to buy whatever product or solutions they deem interesting, Hastings said. Industry associations — such as IAC, the Information Technology Association of America and AFCEA International Inc. — also could play a role by finding and working with companies "out on the edge," he said. For example, the Defense Department last year received more than 12,000 proposals in response to its broad appeal for new technology ideas to combat terrorism. DOD was overwhelmed by the responses, and officials have been working to create a process that allows the department to deal with these requests in a more formal way.

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