Task Force Director Jose Bonilla Tells HSToday How Innovation Takes Flight at TSA

How organizations drive innovation is unique to their operations and culture. It has to be reflective to the stakeholders, environment and activities that occur within it, and around it. And when your organization has to engage and safeguard the traveling public, 24-7, 365 days a year, from a constant array of dynamic and evolving threats, the culture in which you have to innovate has to be quick, nimble and revolutionary. Those three words – quick, nimble and revolutionary – are not words you regularly associate with anyone in the federal government but they represent the vision for what TSA and its Innovation Task Force aspire to achieve.

Jose Bonilla is the director of TSA’s Innovation Task Force, which is part of the Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis (ORCA), and it’s his job to drive many of the innovations that allow TSA to do its job.

HSToday’s Editor at Large Rich Cooper spoke with Jose to get a better understanding of his mission space and how the Innovation Task Force operates.

 

HSToday: What spurred TSA to create the Innovation Task Force?

Bonilla: TSA prioritizes our solution investments based on the latest intelligence concerning terrorist capabilities and intent. What that means is that TSA and industry partners must continually adapt and evolve screening technologies, processes, and systems. Given the difficulty of simulating the operational environment prior to formal testing in the field, it’s hard to develop new capabilities that may be easily integrated into our operational environment. We created the Innovation Task Force (ITF) in the spring of 2016 to address these challenges and partner with solution providers to accelerate development.

 

Joe Bonilla (TSA)

HSToday: Who are the partners you’re looking to assist TSA with this effort?

Bonilla: Our ITF works with public and private partners to provide a platform for government, industry, and stakeholders to gather new approaches and identify real-world needs and impacts. So basically, ITF takes a different tactic to collaborating with industry, and promotes a two-way knowledge exchange and co-creation. When it comes to collaborating with new partners and people, we look for those who are willing to challenge the norm, who are willing to take risks, and put in the effort to accelerate the transportation security ecosystem – those are the people that make the difference for us, and we want more of those people to join us. It’s pretty exciting.

 

HSToday: Who is the partner you don’t have working with you that you want to have on board?

Bonilla: We are lucky to work with some amazing and innovative organizations. Over the past few years we have expanded on those initial relationships and have worked with a variety of innovative and capable industry vendors, airports, airlines, and international governments. We just wish we had the capability and the capacity to work with them even more.

 

HSToday: What difference has the Task Force made in how TSA is doing business?

Bonilla: As I mentioned earlier, ITF was created in 2016 to foster better integration between TSA and industry vendors, and is responsible for establishing TSA’s capability to identify and quickly demonstrate innovative solutions in an operational environment. Our ITF team pushes the agency to think differently about doing business. Through ITF’s work, TSA is better positioned to inform upgrades to current technology and future capabilities, to deliver enhancements to processes and training, to refine a long-term investment strategy, and to develop future requirements and acquisition with a “system of systems” approach.

ALSO READ: TSA Releases Roadmap for Expanding Biometrics Technology

HSToday: Can you share any metrics? How many submissions has the Innovation Task Force reviewed, accepted, rejected, put into deployment?

Bonilla: ITF’s first Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) received over 80 white paper responses, eight of which were net-new solutions for demonstration in 2017. Our second announcement in May 2017 received over 90 white paper responses from more than 100 unique vendors, ultimately resulting in 12 chosen solution demonstrations. The third agency announcement closed on Oct. 26. We’re eager to see the responses!

 

HSToday: What are the biggest successes to date?

Bonilla: Our biggest success to date was to make a big splash with Automated Screening Lanes (ASLs). ASLs were our first demonstration which, through data assessment and analysis, showed a huge benefit to security effectiveness and efficiency. It helped remove obstacles to security effectiveness, made the officers’ jobs easier, and allowed us to increase passenger throughput. ITF is also helping TSA in threat detection through computed tomography (CT) systems and identity verification with biometrics. Since then, ITF has found success with other solicited capabilities and technologies, improved relationships across TSA, and resulted in an overall increase in industry engagement.

 

HSToday: What are the most common mistakes you’ve seen from submissions and does TSA offer any feedback or coaching to those who don’t get selected on how to improve the next time?

Bonilla: Good question. It is essential that submissions are complete – there is a checklist in our BAA, and if vendors are able to provide all of the information, then they will be eligible for the review and selection process. Additionally, submissions should address one of TSA’s outlined problem statements. This year’s BAA includes problem statements to help vendors help fill agency-wide capability gaps, which should serve as guidance for vendors during the application stage. Vendors who are not selected may request feedback from ITF. That’s a benefit because it will improve their future submissions, which is what we want to encourage.

 

HSToday: How has the Task Force evolved since it started?

Bonilla: Interestingly enough, our Innovation Task Force began with just one employee, and has since grown to a 20-person division within TSA. I think that this demonstrates a commitment from the agency that what we are doing in ITF is making a difference. A big difference.

At the risk of repeating myself, it’s important to note that beyond the growth of our team, one key component in ITF’s evolution was the launch of our first Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) in June 2016, which solicited proposals from industry and subsequently received over 80 submissions. The second BAA in May 2017 was designed around six targeted solution categories and received over 90 white paper responses. The current BAA was released in August 2018, and is designed around nine problem statements, identified through capability gap analysis. Ongoing improvements in marketing and industry connections will help continue our productivity and see positive outcomes from the BAA model.

 ALSO READ: PERSPECTIVE: Promises, Insights and Rewards of Data Analytics for TSA

HSToday: Tell me about the BAA – why should industry or even the research community want to participate in this effort?

Bonilla: Our ITF continuously challenges the transportation security ecosystem to re-envision itself as an integrated whole, thereby increasing security effectiveness while reducing friction to the traveler. Our BAA is an opportunity for industry to get involved in this exciting effort. Though we begin by piloting solutions, if solutions are deemed viable, there is visibility in TSA to accelerate development and acquisition. Our currently unparalleled ability to quickly document and understand lessons learned in an operational environment is an invaluable process for industry and the research community.

 

HSToday: What are the metrics by which submissions will be reviewed and ultimately selected?

Bonilla: All application requirements must be met in order for a submission to be considered. Specifically, the selection criteria that are taken into account include security effectiveness, cost, feasibility, problem statement resolution, and the solution’s past performance.

 

HSToday: If a submission does not get accepted, what, if any feedback do they receive in case they want to resubmit their offering at a later date?

Bonilla: Vendors who are not selected following the white paper stage of the application may request feedback from ITF. We encourage that so that next time they can make improvements in their submissions. Those who move on to the final stage will receive a more robust explanation as to why they were not selected. We encourage all applicants and all vendors to provide submissions during each announcement cycle.

 

HSToday: Does the BAA effort connect applicants to any government technology transfer or commercialization processes, or are submitters entirely on their own in this process?

Bonilla: There is no formal connection to technology transfer or commercialization; however, ITF seeks to facilitate vendor-vendor and vendor-stakeholder interactions throughout the industry exchange and BAA process. ITF facilitates structured networking at Industry Days and we are able to draw connections, as appropriate, between vendor capabilities. The BAA also promotes integrated solutions, whereby vendors can connect two discrete capabilities to increase the utility and impact for a screening mission. Following an ITF demonstration, we also make a recommendation for future activity with the solution, which can involve a formal transfer to a procurement or acquisition program.

ALSO READ: TSA Checkpoint at Dulles Gets New State-of-the-Art 3-D Scanner to Improve Explosives Detection

HSToday: What processes does TSA and ITF have in place to safeguard any intellectual property that is offered by submitters?

Bonilla: The BAA process is a formal TSA source selection, and it is important to know that all vendor intellectual property is protected as confidential throughout the review process. Reviewers and participants in the review/selection process are covered under non-disclosure agreements to further protect submitter information. This year, we included a release on the BAA cover page allowing us the ability to share vendor submission information among other stakeholders in the federal government should vendors approve. This allows us to share relevant BAA submissions with other stakeholders/users in government as a service and benefit to vendors.

 

HSToday: TSA is always facing a range of dynamic threats and risks. As you look toward the future, what is the emerging tool, technology or offering that you and TSA see as offering the most promise?

Bonilla: TSA has made significant strides in the use of computed tomography and biometrics.

Research and development efforts have shown that CT-based screening technology is the most consequential technology available today for airport checkpoints, because it automates much of the threat detection function. So far TSA has deployed CT units in 15 airports throughout the country, and we continue to work collaboratively with airlines, industry, and local airport authorities to place additional CT units in security checkpoints nationwide.

With the rising use of biometrics for identity verification, we are evaluating the operational and security impacts of using passengers’ biometrics to verify their identities. Using biometrics modernizes aviation passenger identity verification. By using biometrics, TSA secures a position as a global leader in aviation security and advancing global transportation security standards.

 

HSToday: Have other DHS components come to TSA to replicate the Innovation Task Force approach for their mission portfolios?

Bonilla: ITF is not like intellectual property – we want to share our ideas and processes with other DHS components and the rest of the federal government. Each entity we have met with looks to learn from the pieces that are most applicable to them and develop their own approach to getting better outcomes and we always learn something to bring back to ITF.  And besides, imitation is the highest form of flattery.

 

HSToday: Has there been any engagement with the SAFETY Act Office at DHS S&T to provide any types of limited liability coverage for submitted offerings?

Bonilla: There is a very specific process for vendors to follow with respect to SAFETY Act coverage. Any vendor that reaches out to us with inquiries receives the proper contacts at DHS S&T to help facilitate a discussion on what is allowed by law.

 

HSToday: What’s the business case you would make to a prospective submitter to take part in the IDEA BAA? What are some of the arguments you would convey to them on why they should participate?

Bonilla: ITF is a requirement building body; we partner with the private sector to build opportunities for industry to get their capabilities into a live environment where they can further develop their understanding of TSA’s needs and TSA can better understand what is within the realm of possibility. Additionally, once demonstration data is collected and reviewed, we will provide vendors with operational data and feedback. For vendors, this kind of product development and ongoing feedback is invaluable and will give them the opportunity to create the best solutions possible for airports across the country.

 

HSToday: What makes TSA a good (and reliable) partner with the Innovation Task Force? Especially as requirements and risks are always changing?

Bonilla: ITF is housed within our department of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis, which uniquely positions our team to inform requirements as quickly as we learn about them. We work in tandem with the requirements development teams to build requirements for the future, based off of innovative people, process, and technology improvements.

In Administrator Pekoske’s recently released strategic plan, a key goal is accelerating action. That is exactly what we do. We learn quickly and adapt swiftly. We share our lessons learned so we can better protect the traveling public and safeguard the aviation system. ITF is at the forefront of TSA’s changing requirements and risks, and seeks solutions to stay ahead of these changes.

 

HSToday: At the end of the day, we all want to make a difference. A year from now, what do you hope to say about the difference that the Innovation Task Force will have made to the TSA mission?

Bonilla: Our Innovation Task Force has the opportunity to directly support TSA’s mission by articulating TSA’s gaps, promoting needs identification, and facilitating requirements development to solicit and deploy new and improved security capabilities in alignment with the future vision for aviation security. We are able to leverage the flexibility that ITF has and our connections with stakeholders to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the U.S. transportation security systems, drive the global standard for security, and improve the passenger experience and the flow of commerce. Looking ahead a year from now, we would like to reflect on our work and know that we have executed our mission to the highest possible standard. In line with the administrator’s vision, we will have accelerated action, and protected the traveling public.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is a Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute; a Senior Policy Principal for Homeland Security and Justice at SAS Federal and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. He has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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