Earlier this month, the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Transportation Security held a hearing to examine the challenges the Transportation Security Administration faces in their research and development of security technologies and how those challenges affect TSA’s acquisitions practices.
In particular, the hearing assessed TSA’s progress implementing the Transportation Security Acquisition Reform Act (TSARA), which requires TSA to develop a comprehensive technology acquisition plan. Signed into law on December 18, 2014, TSARA aims to increase transparency and the application of acquisition best practices for security technology acquisitions.
According to Subcommittee Chairman John Katko (R-NY), time and time again TSA has wasted taxpayer dollars on ineffective screening technology. Although the private sector is largely responsible for the research and development of screening technologies, a lack of transparency between TSA and the private sector hinders security technology innovation.
“I am concerned that bureaucracy and stagnation are preventing TSA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from being responsive to legitimate security threats facing our nation,” Katko said. “Indeed, while it is critical that any acquisitions process include safeguards to prevent wasting taxpayer dollars on poor investments and unproven technology, it is just as critical that we are not failing in our most basic mission—to prevent terror attacks against transportation targets. This, no doubt, is a challenge, and I am intent on holding both TSA and industry accountable to a reasoned, effective investment strategy.”
Katko continued, “I am concerned about whether TSA is making procurement and investment decisions in a vacuum, without leveraging sufficient support from other government experts and stakeholders. Additionally, I remain unconvinced that TSA and DHS’ Science & Technology directorate are working closely enough to develop and test existing and future technology. A lack of cross-pollination and communication between these entities is, I believe, hindering their ability to meet mission needs.”
According to Katko, TSARA requires TSA to submit to Congress a strategic five-year technology investment plan. TSA submitted this plan to the Committee in August 2015, marking a significant step in the right direction. However, the agency still has a way to go, especially amid increasing concerns that small businesses could be locked out of research and development opportunities because of difficult communications in the agency’s acquisition process. Several panel members asked
Jill Vaughan, Assistant Administrator of TSA’s Office of Security Capabilities, about how small businesses were going to be able to get involved given TSA’s technological requirements. Vaughan acknowledged that small businesses can be more creative and innovative and they were valuable to the screening technology. She explained how TSA is paving the way for small businesses to break through the bureaucracy and compete with the major players, which have a distinct advantage based on available capital.
For example, Vaughan noted that TSA has taken steps to improve industry and vendor collaboration. She said, “TSA has implemented “industry days and vendor communications with a series of industry forum working groups and released a Request for Information (RFI) to solicit industry input which was then drafted into a copy of the Plan. This report was also reviewed by the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC) before being finalized and submitted to Congress on August 12, 2015.”
Testifying before the committee, Michele Mackin, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said approximately 15,000 airport security systems were fielded by TSA as of August 2015. She expressed concern that of the 22 tested passenger and baggage screeningsystems completing the TSA’s test and evaluation phases from June 2010 to July 2015 only 11 of those passed operational testing and only 10 were procured.
TSA cited immature technologies as the main contributor to these shortcomings. Mackin asserted that TSA recognizes its shortcomings and has taken steps to improve its test and evaluation processes, including sharing test plans with vendors, in an effort to be more transparent and increase the maturity of technologies put forth by vendors.
“While industry officials agreed that TSA has become more transparent, they said that the number of test plans that TSA has shared thus far has been limited,” Mackin said.
Mackin reiterated the recommendations from GAO’s December 2015 report that TSA finalize all aspects of the third party testing strategy before implementing further third party testing requirements for vendors to enter testing; and conduct and document a comprehensive assessment of testing data to identify key factors contributing to any acquisition inefficiencies and potential areas for reform.
DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendations and estimated that it would complete both actions by the end of calendar year 2016.
According to Steven Wallen, Director of the Explosives Division at DHS S&T, TSA is also working with the National Institute of Science and Technology to develop a Third Party Test Program to ensure capabilities are mature enough to enter TSA’s formal Test and Evaluation Process.
“S&T’s Office of Test and Evaluation oversees test and evaluation (T&E) for DHS major acquisitions including at TSA, ensuring homeland security technologies are reliable, interoperable and effective. S&T provides test and evaluation oversight for the Department’s major acquisition programs housed by the DHS Components. In this capacity, S&T develops DHS-wide T&E policies and procedures, acts as principal advisor on operational T&E to the Office of the Secretary and the Component heads, and manages a T&E Center of Excellence to support the Department,” explained Wallen.
The development of improved detection systems in coordination with S&T will assist TSA and provide new growth potential for both small and large aviation equipment manufacturers. TSA seeks to develop a more robust adaptive passenger screening system, which will build upon the existing capabilities of the current systems and create a more effective and efficient screening process.
While much works remains to fully implement all the provisions of TSARA, TSA remains hopeful that the agency will be able to resolve acquisition and procurement challenges associated with screening technology, particularly through the advancement of small business involvement.