U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s procurement shop is invested in improving collaboration and communication with industry “because no one should call me and say what’s going on with this one” as contract opportunities work their way through the process, Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Acquisition Diane Sahakian told the Government Services and Technology Coalition at the industry group’s recent annual meeting.
Sahakian, who wears dual hats while also serving as CBP’s Head of Contracting Activity (a role she expects to be filled soon), has served the CBP mission dating back to the U.S. Customs Service in 1985.
At the conclusion of 2022, CBP reported advances in innovation and increased efficiencies to assist U.S. Border Patrol, such as digital processing and electronic A-files, mobile processing, renovated central processing centers and new soft-sided facilities, increased efforts on virtual processing, and autonomous technologies including additional Autonomous Surveillance Towers, next-generation communications solutions, and body-worn cameras. Agents also need to be outfitted with body armor, weapons, and other essentials. Development of counter-UAS technologies has also been a priority as cartels’ use of unmanned aerial systems along the border has increased. Remediation projects have focused on fixing gaps and gates in incomplete border barrier projects. And technology and services support CBP’s missions of cargo screening, Trusted Traveler Programs, drug seizures, agricultural inspections, trade enforcement, and more.
When CBP officers at the border began to be overwhelmed with influxes of migrants and safely housing them was a concern, Sahakian’s team was there to help with the acquisition of temporary soft-sided facilities. “That and all the technology, and I think to myself ‘that’s my team making all that happen,’” she said. “And then I thought more about it – I used to think that my team was the last touchpoint but really, you guys, it’s industry because we’re the pass-through to industry. Industry is what makes it happen, really, with the operators.”
Recognizing the importance of relationships with industry, Sahakian said her team has been focusing on “improving how we communicate with industry – making sure we don’t go dark on a project.”
“I get a call from somebody saying ‘what’s going on with this’ and I know, if it’s a quasi-active RFP, then we’re not doing something right,” she said.
Sahakian’s team works 7,000 to 8,000 contract actions per year that have unique levels of prioritization at the Department of Homeland Security. “We try to make sure that we communicate as well as we can,” she said.
Collaboration is the procurement shop’s focus – supported by CBP’s new Business Connection platform that enables technology companies to pitch their products and services to various CBP offices. Registered tech companies can request meetings with the Office of Information Technology, CBP Innovation Team, Office of Field Operations, U.S. Border Patrol, or the Office of Trade’s (OT) Business Transformation and Innovation Division.
“What we’re trying to do in IT is to expand that to the point where if you want to have a meeting with, let’s say with me, you go to the portal and see the opportunity to schedule a meeting with me,” Sahakian said, stressing that they are trying to optimize these meetings with drop-downs to direct requests and by “making sure that what you want to say is heard by the people who might want to fund that.” She anticipated more functionality for the Business Connection portal soon.
“We’re operating in a fast-paced environment,” she said, noting that “technology changes fast” while lawmakers put pressure on the component to see results from funded projects.
DHS prepared for the end of the Title 42 public health order, which allowed the rapid expulsion of migrants who crossed at U.S. land borders in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19, by anticipating a potential surge of migrants as CBP began once again enforcing immigration admissibility using Title 8. “The thought was afterward we would be inundated at the border, so I went to Rio Grande Valley and Brownsville the week of May 14, wanting to be there to see firsthand how we could help them,” Sahakian said.
While CBP didn’t experience that immediate surge – as many migrants approaching the southwest border have taken advantage of the process to make an appointment at a point of entry using the CBP One app – being ready to respond in a fluid operating environment illustrates the degree and scope of the procurement team’s foresight and preparation.
Sahakian then went to El Paso to address concerns about the number of caregivers. “We have contracts but it’s hard to get caregivers and then vet them to the standards of CBP,” she said.
“So that’s the kind of challenges that we have,” she continued. “In terms of my talk about not trying not to go dark on procurements, we will say and talk about almost anything but there are certain times on certain projects that we can’t talk – and I think that you guys will respect when those times are.”
After the 2018-19 government shutdown, Sahakian told HSToday that the procurement office learned retention and proper staffing to deal with a lapse in funding was critical.
“We learned that it really impacts the morale of the staff. Some people left government when they came back,” she said then. “There was uncertainty on the status of some contracts, whether or not they had they been notified to stop or to proceed. And we’re going to do better next time… I just think having the right manpower to staff a lapse is very important.”
With last weekend’s last-minute passage of a continuing resolution to keep the government open, Congress now faces a Nov. 17 deadline to pass another CR or appropriations legislation to avoid a government shutdown.
Under the Fiscal Responsibility Act, if appropriations bills are not enacted by January both defense and nondefense funding levels will be cut by 1 percent.
“That’s not going to look good for anybody,” Sahakian said. “One percent on our normal $17 billion budget – that is a nice chunk of change. So the agency is already scrambling to see what can make that up. We’ve got to watch carefully the CR, what that means and what happens there.”