DHS needs to try tech before it buys, GAO says

Department advised to complete research tests before acquisition begins

The Homeland Security Department should avoid costly mistakes by completing testing of new technologies before it begins major acquisitions, an official of the Government Accountability Office told a House panel today.

DHS has already experienced problems in several cases when new technologies were acquired and implemented before testing and evaluation were complete, David Maurer, director of homeland security and justice issues at GAO, told the House Science and Technology Committee's Technology and Innovation Subcommittee. In those cases, the results included costs overruns, procurement delays and inefficiencies.

Managers should conduct cost-benefit analysis while new technologies are still in the pre-acquisition stage, Maurer added.

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For example, last September, GAO reported that DHS’ Domestic Nuclear Detection Office was simultaneously researching, and also planning for acquisition, of an advanced automated radiography system to detect nuclear materials in vehicles and at ports. DHS spent $113 million on acquisition from 2005 to 2007, when acquisition was canceled because it was determined that the system would not fit within existing inspection lanes and would slow the flow of commerce and cause major delays.

In 2010, GAO found that the Coast Guard had ordered maritime patrol aircraft, medium response boats and Sentinel class patrol boats prior to completing testing, putting those programs at risk if problems were later detected in their designs.

In October 2009, GAO reported that the Transportation Security Administration had installed explosives trace portal machines at airport checkpoints, even though previous tests showed that the portals did not perform reliably in airport environments. TSA halted the deployments in 2006.

“Our work has highlighted the need for DHS to strengthen its R&D efforts by ensuring that testing efforts are completed before making acquisition decisions and cost-benefit analyses are conducted to reduce research and development inefficiencies and costs,” Maurer said. “The planned actions DHS reports it is taking or has under way to address management of its research and development programs are positive steps and, if implemented effectively, could help the department address many of these challenges. However, it is too early to fully assess the effect of these actions.”

DHS officials announced in January a new model for managing departmentwide spending programs across their life cycles and including the Science & Technology directorate in every phase of the cycle.

“According to DHS, S&T will help ensure that new technologies are properly scoped, developed and tested before being implemented,” Maurer said.

Tara O'Toole, undersecretary at the S&T directorate, said she has started new strategic goals for the directorate that include developing and delivering innovation solutions for DHS missions; becoming best in class at technology foraging, which means scanning the horizon for new technologies that can be applied to DHS missions; working with  the private sector through investments in nonprofit groups and identifying and prioritizing projects to solve long-term strategic needs; supporting university research and innovation; and strengthening the broader homeland security community and first-responder community with new technology solutions.

The directorate also recently created an Acquisition Support and Operations Analysis Group to provide a range of coordinated operations analysis, systems engineering, test and evaluation, and standards development. The goal of the group is to deal with the "front-end” needs of the acquisition cycle by helping to translate mission needs into testable requirements, O’Toole said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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