DHS mulls one office for IT buys

CTO Lee Holcomb says DHS is reviewing various means of consolidating central functions.

Olivier Douliery

Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge said the CAPPS II project would be scrapped, but the department will retain parts of the program.

Strategy targets lower prices, better vendor relationships

The Homeland Security Department is considering creating a central procurement office to bring order to its expanding list of IT initiatives, a senior official has told GCN.

Observers in industry feel the policy change could help consolidate control of projects spread across many agencies within the department. It would parallel efforts in Congress to reinforce central IT management at DHS.

Planning for the project is in the early stages. The senior official, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, said DHS aims to create the central IT procurement office no later than Oct. 1, 2005. The office would include a staff of about 75 professionals and be led by a senior acquisition official.

'The department has about a five or six billion dollar spin on IT,' the official said. 'It makes sense to have a centralized IT acquisition center.'

'The benefits would be huge,' the official said. 'If you think about it, this work is being done all over the department. With centralized procurement, you would have better partnerships with vendors and lower prices.'

Lee Holcomb, the department's chief technology officer in its CIO Office, said DHS is reviewing various means of consolidating functions that run across bureaus.

'The department has an activity under way called the functional integration team,' Holcomb said. The team is looking at central functions such as procurement and human resources, and developing a model of how they could be provided to DHS' 22 component agencies. 'There are a variety of options under study,' Holcomb said. 'It is too early to say where the department is going to come down.'

Officials have not yet reached agreement on the need for a centralized procurement operation, Holcomb said.

Meanwhile, DHS is shepherding several major projects through the procurement process (see chart, below). Some are facing hurdles.

A case in point is the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II. Secretary Tom Ridge earlier this month said that CAPPS II, a system for screening airline passengers, had been cancelled, declaring it had a stake through its heart. But a department spokesman said parts of the project likely would be retained in an overhauled system.

Holcomb said that the as-yet-unnamed follow-on version of CAPPS II would be crafted with a careful eye to privacy concerns.

Another uncertain initiative is DHS' Spirit program. Originally a Coast Guard multiple-award procurement for a broad range of IT services, the $5 billion, five-year Security Planning and Integrated Resources for IT effort has been on hold since May. Greg Rothwell, the department's chief procurement officer, is scheduled to rule on the Spirit program's fate by the end of July. Rothwell, CIO Steve Cooper and others want to be sure the department really needs Spirit, given the number of governmentwide acquisition vehicles that already exist.

Some vendors said they resent the possible abandonment of Spirit. The complex procurement required them to prepare dozens of proposals in some cases, and all that costly business development work may have been for naught.

Still another program in the very early stages of development is the Citizenship and Immigration Services Initiative to overhaul systems for processing immigration benefits.
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Those systems now rely on paper processes and computer systems that sport dated architectures and software, such as Job Control Language and Time Sharing Option. CIS said in a recent request for information that it would consider outsourcing much of its IT function.

Several other major programs, launched by various DHS components, are either steaming into the procurement process or are in the early stages of development.

The U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System is perhaps DHS' most visible IT procurement. The prime contractor, Accenture LLP, weathered a post-award fray in Congress over Accenture's being incorporated in Bermuda.

James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, expressed optimism about U.S. Visit. He praised program manager Jim Williams as 'very capable' and added, 'I also think U.S. Visit will never reach all its goals. It does not have to be perfect. It just has to be an effective arrow in the quiver. I would like to see a cost-effective project that gets results without being over-ambitious.'

Wireless services

The Integrated Wireless Network project, a massive effort to field wireless voice and data services for the Justice, Treasury and Homeland Security departments, has started a three-phase procurement process by issuing a statement of objectives for comment. The program will proceed to a down selection process and later to a task order for systems design. Ultimately, the IWIN Joint Program Office plans to award one or more contracts to field the advanced communications system.

The department's Homeland Security Information Network now has rolled out services to dozens of law enforcement nodes across the country. One of the main goals of the program is to foster vertical information sharing among local, state and federal agencies.

Some in the vendor, law enforcement and intelligence communities deride the system's capabilities. They contend that DHS' Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate exaggerates HSIN's capabilities as compared with other networks such as TTIC Online, run by the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, and the Justice Department's Law Enforcement OnlineRegional Information Sharing System Network-Open Source Information System. These two networks are connected to thousands more sites.

First responders

But HSIN has its backers, too. 'HSIN is one of the success stories,' Carafano said. 'It is getting some capabilities out there and leveraging things that are in existence.'

A smaller information-sharing program is HSIN-CI, in which the CI stands for critical infrastructure. The project, based on an FBI-sponsored Dallas Emergency Response Network, funnels homeland security information to first responders and private sector organizations responsible for critical infrastructure installations. It is also being piloted in Atlanta, Seattle and Indianapolis for testing.

The Transportation Security Administration's Transportation Worker Identification Card program attracted criticism from Congress last year over its ambitious and costly scale. Carafano noted that program executives appear to have focused a lot of effort on the system's technology.

DHS has struggled to bring the Automated Commercial Environment project within Customs and Border Protection under control. Part of the issue there, Holcomb said, is that officials redirected the legacy program to speed the incorporation of its homeland security elements after 9/11 and Customs' adoption by DHS.

'It is hard to shift direction in a large program,' he said.

Holcomb, Cooper and others at DHS' headquarters are seeking to bring order to the department's sprawling IT procurement operations partly by advancing the department's enterprise architecture.

In late September or early October, the next version of the enterprise architecture will be ready, Holcomb said. It will begin the process of 'mission rationalization,' he added, under which DHS technology officials will determine which IT components to keep and which to scuttle.

James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Ridge should consider assembling a powerful central planning staff for IT and everything else.

'They need to do this at the secretary's level,' Lewis said. 'An assistant secretary is not the right person to carry this out.'

A congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, added, 'DHS planning is decentralized now. Over time you will see more centralized decision-making. Everybody has parochial views on how their systems need to be maintained.'

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