Stalled at the pass

Thomas R. Temin

On Sept. 12, every IT company became an antiterror, homeland security vendor'or so it seemed, judging by the sheer volume of marketing hype.

Lately, companies have been complaining that federal agencies have not been listening. Read: They are not buying the products the vendors so carefully purport to be security panaceas. Some companies have gone so far as to hint, and not too subtly, that had the government been using their products, the Sept. 11 attacks could have been averted.

The refrain has reached the ears of Congress. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) has introduced HR 4629 to speed up government adoption of new products purported to boost security.

At a recent Federal Sources Inc. conference, Davis said many vendors had griped about difficulties in getting meetings with agency decision-makers. Or, when they did get meetings, nothing resulted.

Davis' bill, an amendment to the Office of Federal Procurement Policy Act, would establish teams to evaluate products and proposals, implement streamlined acquisition procedures and allow payments to vendors for trying. These would be security fly-offs, if you will.

A note of caution is called for here.

Many new products undoubtedly would aid security and counterterrorism efforts. But hyperbole accompanies many new, immature technologies. Some simply don't work or aren't reliable enough to be useful.

Facial recognition, for example, is expensive and chancy, even if in theory it can solve many problems. Vendors hawking such products have trouble selling them in the private sector, and they suspect the government is desperate.

Agencies might be unwilling to plunge in and try new technologies because they lack the technical or managerial infrastructure to make good use of them. But that's no reason to start buying products willy-nilly. Isn't that precisely what everyone has been preaching not to do for the past decade?

Clearing bureaucratic hurdles to genuine improvements is a great idea. But no vendor should expect to railroad its products into an unwilling or unready government.

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