DHS seeks better acquisition ideas
- By Mark Rockwell
- May 29, 2013
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.
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.
Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.
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, tele.com 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.
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