DHS seeks better acquisition ideas

man graphs performance

The Department of Homeland Security is on the lookout for new ideas to make the most of a shifting acquisition environment, according to the agency's top manager.

In a May 28 interview with FCW, Rafael Borras, DHS under secretary for management, tied the environment for IT acquisition at his department to the acquisition several years ago of a massive border security project: SBINet.

"SBInet pushed [Customs and Border Protection] to think about how their acquisition strategy worked. The border is different. It has different requirements in different places" on the ground, said Borras. "CBP tried to acquire big services through a single contractor. It eventually transitioned to a decentralized approach. It was a hard road, but we learned from it."

Borras oversees management of DHS's almost $60 billion budget, appropriations, expenditure of funds, accounting, and finance. He's also responsible for administering almost $19 billion in procurement.

SBInet was a massive 2006 contract with Boeing for new integrated system of personnel, infrastructure, technology and rapid response, encompassing border security capabilities from observation towers and sensors to communications technologies aimed at securing 2,000 miles of southwestern U.S. borderland. It was part of the larger Secure Borders Initiative that encompassed CBP, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Rafael Borras

Rafael Borras

SBInet's problems became apparent in 2008, when a Government Accountability Office study showed some systems deployed under the program had numerous performance issues. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano ultimately sidelined the contract in 2011, ordering $50 million of it diverted to other efforts and freezing the rest of the work. The contract's troubled arc set the stage for CBP's current off-the-shelf approach to border security technology. In sidelining the contract, Napolitano said it had been "plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines." Now-retired Sen. Joseph Liebeman (I-Conn.), who was the head of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at the time, said the project's "one-size fits all approach was unrealistic."

SBInet, said Borras, offers a cautionary tale for the way DHS approaches IT products and services procurement these days, showing that a centralized approach to management and acquisition can have a steep downside.

DHS' IT acquisition process is in a state of flux as tightening budgets and shifting technology change ground rules, he said. The way the massive agency buys everything – as simple as pens and paper or as complex as IT is ripe for revision, and Borras said he is moving to embrace that change. But that requires some detailed planning.

"Don't tell me only that you want an agile approach," said Borras. He is pushing his acquisition managers and suppliers to think about the details and unique circumstances of their projects, and to think creatively.

"I want to provoke the acquisition community" into thinking differently, he said. "I don't want to run headlong into the latest IT fad. It's a big shift from waterfall acquisition to an agile approach."

Borras said he wants to get people thinking about underlying details and requirements of their projects, instead of just overlaying a rote acquisition strategy, either centralized or individualized. He said he has no't come to a determined conclusion on either, however. "What's the sweet spot? We don't really have the answer. We have to have a more sophisticated approach. It can't be one size fits all."

Borras is currently on a kind of fact-finding mission, asking for input from DHS acquisition officers and outside vendors on their ideas. He has been bringing vendors into the agency in small groups of half a dozen or so over the last few months to talk about the acquisition process, as well as talking to small-business groups about how they can get involved in selling to DHS. Ultimately, Borras said, he wants to have a set of common ideas for the acquisition process accumulated from the meetings by the end of July or early August that could help illuminate the way forward.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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Reader comments

Fri, May 31, 2013 John Weiler, IT-AAC United States

DHS's problem is with a pervasive NIH mentality. The IT Acquisition Advisory Council ( has invested five years studying material weaknesses in IT Acquisitions, and has found the same problems across government; - Reliance on a FFRDC developed Waterfall Acquisition Model designed for weapon systems in the 70s - Failure to conform to legislative directive requiring adoption of commercial best practice in IT Management - Inability to readiness assess strengths and weaknesses of COTS solutions, leading to over specification and risk. The Interop. Clearinghouse developed an Agile Acquisition Process years ago called the Acquisition Assurance Method (AAM), which DHS's FFRDC refused to consider due to unresolved conflicts of interest. Time to listen to Einstein who said "you can't fix today's problems with the same thinking that got you there". Time to rein in some of our FFRDCs, starting with Mitre.

Thu, May 30, 2013

The main problem with government acquisition is the complexity. It is too complex to navigate due Congress's well-intentioned, yet ill-conceived methods of trying to steer social and economic policy through the acquisition process. That's not what it's for. It's for getting agencies what they need to accomplish their missions at fair prices. It's not for vendors to protest the government into impotence.

Cut the red-tape at the Congressional level by dramatically re-tooling the FAR, support the workforce more, automate the procurement system documentation process, and give the program managers and contracting officers more discretion rather than rendering them impotent by a myriad of compliances. That's how you start to fix this worsening problem.

Thu, May 30, 2013

It all starts with a valid and detailed requirements definition. If you don't have that, no matter how you slice and dice the contract, the project will fail.

Thu, May 30, 2013 Mike K Arlington VA

BAA Annual business cycles, with off cycle BAA's if needed. Have Interagency Requirement Meetings to discover and discuss REQURIEMENTS. VOTE on requirements as a member board panel (one panel for each subgroup of requirements or orgs), one member from each Agency. Hold an annual meeting for all to visit; call it the Advance Plan and Briefing to Industry Day, and let vendors pay to come; serve cokies and milk. Publish a Broad Agency Announcement, publish your Requirements, and use a central cloud solution repository for member orgs (agency members) to accept Quad Charts from vendors over 30 days, then close the BAA. Members each go over the Quads, and pass or fail (inside the cloud solution). Those vendors that pass, get a request for White Paper, and of those who pass the White Paper stage, get a RFP. This is an annual cycle; make it an event. Allow for any Quads to be researched for X number of years, by all Agencies after closing for re-consideration at any time; all Quads qualify with Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) for competition.

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