Bipartisan bill calls for TSA strategic technology plan

A TSA screener checks a passenger’s identification at security checkpoint.

A TSA screener checks a passenger’s identification at security checkpoint.

Bipartisan bill calls for TSA strategic technology plan
By Mickey McCarter

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) lacks multi-year strategic planning to guide its investments in technology, lawmakers charged Thursday.

Without a strategic plan, TSA cannot demonstrate that it is taking the best approach to buying screening technology and making other investments. And so a new bipartisan bill (HR 2719) would direct TSA to develop such a plan.

The House Homeland Security transportation security subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday with private sector experts to gain perspectives on steps TSA could take to improve its procurement planning before introducing a bill Thursday.

Rep. Richard Hudson (R-SC), subcommittee chairman, spearheaded the hearing and subsequent bill.

“The bipartisan piece of legislation introduced today includes common-sense reforms that create a multi-year acquisitions plan, establish cost-benefit analysis, improve TSA’s engagement with small business and efficiently track and manage equipment in inventory. I am confident these reforms will have a lasting impact and help restore trust in TSA’s ability to effectively execute its mission and save hard-earned taxpayer dollars,” Hudson said in a statement.

Business experts at Wednesday’s hearing agreed TSA in particular could significantly improve in those areas.

Generally, TSA could improve communication with industry and should develop a long-term strategic technology plan, said Marc Pearl, president of the Homeland Security and Defense Business Council.

Early engagement with industry, long before the release of a request for proposals (RFP) or request for information (RFI) would help TSA understand what is possible and feasible, Pearl said. More robust discussions with business would help TSA conceptualize best practices and metrics for fulfilling its procurement goals.

“TSA recognizes this, and it’s working to expand and deepen engagement with industry,” Pearl acknowledged.

TSA should increase its face-to-face meetings with businesses and hold more frequent, more focused and smaller industry days. It should release more RFPs in draft form to gain more feedback from companies. But it should release fewer RFIs, which are costly and time-consuming for companies, who see little benefit from them, Pearl said.

Pearl offered the NASA 2012 Strategic Space Technology Plan as a good template for a strategic plan. The plan projects technology requirements for four years but has a long-range outlook of 20 years.

The plan is not a list of what government will buy but a flexible document that can adapt to circumstances if the risk profile dramatically changes, Pearl said.

More collaboration between TSA and industry would help TSA with best practices and help industry to understand TSA requirements, said Shené Commodore, business manager for Intertek, a network of testing laboratories.

Improved acquisition planning would require TSA to conduct more market research before drafting program requirements, said Commodore, testifying on behalf of the Security Industry Association (SIA). In doing so, TSA could turn to associations like SIA for assistance.

In addition, a greater reliance on testing equipment to speed verified equipment to market would help TSA contain costs, Commodore said. TSA could increase its reliance on third-party laboratories to expand its test and evaluation efforts.

TSA also should make realistic assessments of their costs with realistic and timely cost/benefit analyses. And it could streamline acquisitions and save money with more reliance on established government contract vehicles, Commodore said.

Multi-year planning, as advocated by Pearl, would establish a baseline whereby TSA truly could assess cost/benefit factors and economic tradeoffs, Commodore said. TSA acquisition staff should more proactively dig through large contracts to break out requirements that could be set aside for small business.

And working with TSA has not been easy for small businesses.

Dolan Falconer, president of ScanTech Identification Beam Systems LLC, expressed frustration with slow and cumbersome TSA dealings with small business.

Identification Beam Systems (IBS) has been working with TSA since 2006, when the agency began seeking a carryon luggage scanner that could clear bottled liquids through airport passenger checkpoints. IBS became one of seven companies to undergo a qualification process with TSA — and the only small business to do so.

Seven years later, IBS executives and investors have no reassurance that TSA will pursue its Sentinel scanning technology. The lengthy processes at TSA create barriers for small businesses to deal with the agency. Larger businesses have more capital and extensive resources, enabling them to wait out the delays.

“It’s been a long and arduous process for us,” Falconer said.

Falconer called for increased funding mechanisms for research and development and less reliance on private funding at the small business level. TSA should also provide prior access to its operations to small businesses to give them the information necessary to meet TSA requirements.

Ideally, TSA would implement a holistic procurement system that would nurture small businesses, them with access, sponsor security clearances and work with them collaboratively to develop standards and solutions, Falconer said.

TSA “always go to the big guys for expertise, but innovation often comes from small business,” Falconer said. Small business would like more input into TSA standards and requirements.

Informal, small meetings on general concepts and principles would benefit both TSA and industry, the three witnesses agreed. Commodore pointed to a TSA industry day held on third-party prescreening initiatives as a good example of a useful meeting held far in advance to establish realistic program requirements.

TSA spent about $2.4 billion on goods and services in fiscal year 2012, said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. But TSA did so without setting technology requirements for its acquisitions, including gaps to be addressed with its procurements. Because of that, TSA risks wasting money, as it did in 2009 with the acquisition of $100 million in full body scanners. According to the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, TSA could have saved up to $40 million in that procurement if it conducted a cost/benefit analysis and improved its understanding of privacy concerns prior to buying the machines.

Thompson, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) joined Hudson in introducing the TSA acquisition reform bill Thursday.

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