DHS teams accept technical risks

Agencies expect integrated product teams to deliver solutions to security challenges

The Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) has formed 11 integrated products teams to meet the department's needs in critical areas such as border security, cybersecurity and information sharing.

Adm. Jay Cohen, the directorate's undersecretary, said DHS borrowed the idea of integrated teams from the Navy. The purpose of the teams, he said, is to ensure that all parts of DHS are collaborating to solve technology challenges quickly and efficiently.

One team is collaborating on the technology challenge of detecting explosives in baggage and at checkpoints at border crossings, Cohen said at a recent DHS-sponsored industry conference. A solution for that challenge could apply to related challenges of screening people and cargo. The teams are seeking credible solutions that can be deployed on a large scale, he said.

'We de-risk solutions and go to full-scale acquisition,' Cohen said. The various teams accept different levels of risk. 'Some will take a higher risk for a higher gain,' he added.

The directorate will spend $343 million, slightly more than half of its budget, on integrating the teams' solutions into the environments in which they will be used, Cohen said. He announced that later this year DHS will move two technology programs ' BioWatch and Safecom ' into communities. BioWatch is a bio-aerosol monitoring system designed to help cities detect a biological attack.

The Safecom program created communications standards for first responders.
DHS agencies can present their technology challenges to the S&T directorate, and if their challenge can be broadly applied, the directorate will form an integrated products team, Cohen said.

The teams include one person from the requesting directorate as the team leader. Each team has three other voting members, one from the S&T office, another representing an acquisition authority and third representing the user community. Officials from other DHS directorates and federal agencies can participate, but they cannot vote on spending decisions.

Cohen said the teams call on experts from industry and academia to help them explore technology solutions.

'The S&T member offers possible technology solutions based on the directorate's research, and the customer decides what they want to pursue,' said Robert Hooks, director of transition for S&T. 'We want to know they are committed to see this through, so the other DHS agencies must be ready to spend the money.'
Before the teams begin work on a project for a particular agency, that organization's senior level executive must sign off on a plan, Hooks said. A plan includes details about funding, testing schedules and expectations.

Hooks said the teams already are paying dividends in improved communication and relations among DHS' directorates. Rod MacDonald, assistant commissioner at the Customs and Border Protection's Office of Information and Technology, said his organization has embraced the team approach because it focuses on immediate and future needs.

'We are able to refine the definition of our needs based on others' needs,' MacDonald said. 'S&T takes major technology areas and coordinates the requirements and focuses the funds.'

Hooks said the teams help set strategic priorities for agency leaders. They also assess the skills that employees will need to use the technology and identify policies that need to be considered.

Phil Letowt, chief architect at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement directorate, said new technologies can be disruptive, but integrated products teams are able to manage that disruption. The teams 'help us take advantage of new ideas while keeping the rules and funding in mind,' he said.

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