Members from Amtrak police, Transportation Security Administration and local law enforcement agencies participate in Operation RAILSAFE at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station on Sept. 3, 2015. (Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler)

Count on Strategic Plan to Guide Procurement Through TSA Changes, Says Contracting Chief

Katrina Brisbon was named Assistant Administrator for the Office of Contracting and Procurement at the Transportation Security Administration in November 2017. Brisbon is responsible for the oversight of contract operations, contract policy and business systems for TSA. She recently talked with HSToday about her job and what procurement looks like on the horizon. 

HS Today: You’ve been at TSA just about 15 months. What are the things you’ve tried to do in that in that period to really drive more innovation into the contracting process?

Katrina Brisbon: One of the key challenges for procurement across government is coming up with innovative ways to streamline our processes to award a contract, which will get us to execution much more quickly. Oftentimes we have interpreted processes into the gray space of the Federal Acquisition Regulations where creative strategies could be applied.

One of the things that I’ve done is challenged my workforce to think outside the box. Think about the processes that we execute. And if, in fact, there is value with the processes that we have in place, then maybe what we want to look at is how we curtail them in our streamlining efforts.

And if we find that it’s not a regulatory process, it’s not mandated that it be executed in that manner, then we want to determine the value of that process. And the value that it adds. What does it bring us in the big scheme of the overall award? And how does it help us meet the mission on that requirement?

On the horizon currently is the agency’s technology modernization efforts. First out of the procurement organization is the Advanced Technology/Computed Tomography acquisition. As threats continue threats to evolve, TSA will require capabilities that continue to meet the needs of safeguarding the traveling public.

HS Today: So in the contract it basically says we’re going to buy this from you now, but you the vendor has to be able to upgrade it?

Katrina Brisbon (TSA photo)

Brisbon: Upgradeability is one of the key evaluation factors for this procurement. From a lifecycle standpoint, this will increase the useful life of the actual component. But from a capability perspective, it will extend our ability to increase the security posture of TSA.

This is evidence of the innovative thinking of the workforce at TSA contracting and procurement. That is, moving the requirement much more quickly and much differently than we have in past. This ensures the agency is able to expeditiously field components in a manner that actually meets mission needs.

HS Today: So what do you see as your greatest challenge?

Brisbon: Integrating small-business innovators into the technology security equipment (TSE) portfolio is the greatest challenge.

The industrial base for TSE is small. The testing required to ensure the equipment meets performance requirements continues for an elongated period and often small-business innovators are unable to continue in the multiple phases as these are often not revenue generating engagements. TSA is exploring options on improvements in this area.

HS Today: And how are you doing that? Are you using technology challenges?

Brisbon: Yes, TSA utilizes the Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) process and invites company capability statements. A technical team evaluates the capabilities, and those that that would solve a TSA problem are selected for demonstrations and operational testing.

The agency’s ability to be able conduct a procurement for demonstrations depends upon the availability of funding. Often the agency will request bailment of equipment to conduct testing to determine the equipment’s utility in the TSA operational environment.

HS Today: Train stations are one of those places where the challenge is throughput – you couldn’t put an airport-style checkpoint there.

Brisbon: That is correct. There are technologies that offer body-detection capability that has been demonstrated in other transportation venues. These have shown great utility for use in transportation platforms like train stations.

HS Today: How can industry best help you meet those challenges?

Brisbon: Well, what is very valuable is industry’s response to RFIs – helping us to inform our requirements.

Next, the agency often utilizes the BAA process to invite industry solutions to agency challenges. If there are capabilities that have utility within the transportation mission areas, industry may submit their solutions to the TSA BAA when it opens for submissions.

I also invite – and I found this much more prevalent in my time in the Department of Defense – market research that industry is willing to share that may inform agency strategies and requirements. Market research also helps to inform of processes and technology available in the commercial market that may not have yet been adopted in the federal space.

HS Today: Talk to me about the protest environment.

Brisbon: Just as other federal agencies, TSA does receive protests but they have been decreasing. TSA has been successful in building trust with industry through first holding meaningful discussions or communications during the pre-award period and then subsequently holding meaningful debriefings with unsuccessful offerors. These efforts all add significant value to industry’s ability to improve its next engagement for government contracts. After we’ve held meaningful communication with industry, I believe they walk away with the confidence that the integrity of the procurement process has been upheld and, as well, they glean information that aids in their competitive posture for future requirements. There are still, however, those companies that make the business decision to protest. For TSA, there are less of these experiences occurring.

HSToday: Will the changes in leadership at TSA impact procurement? If so, how? Any advice for industry?

Brisbon: TSA Contracting and Procurement is postured to continue supporting agency program offices in the execution of the TSA priorities outlined in the 2018-2026 Strategic Plan. My advice to industry is to give attention to the TSA strategy and the TSA administrator’s intent. Those strategic documents will guide core agency activities to execute the TSA mission.

HS Today: You talked about the need to debrief better after awards to try to head off protests, but what are you doing to improve your communication with industry on the front end?

Brisbon: TSA is proactive in soliciting industry input on mission-critical requirements.  Meaningful exchanges are key to bringing clarification to complex challenges experienced by both government and industry. Over the last year, TSA has continuously communicated the 2018-2026 TSA strategy, which effectively articulates the agency’s shared vision and identifies those priorities that will guide TSA through its 25th anniversary. TSA also sponsors multiple procurement or topic-area-related industry days, which provides industry great insight into specific government requirements as well as those specific ‘pain points’ and challenges the agency is attempting to resolve. In recent months TSA hosted three industry days to communicate the agency’s direction and elicit industry feedback for Biometrics, Pre-Check Expansion and the Accessible Property Screening. These are just three of the mission-critical requirements that will be guiding agency activities over the next year.

HS Today: You talked a bit about your computer-aided tomography [CT] program. What are the other big programs, big procurements you’re hoping to get out this year?

Brisbon:  To name a few,

  • Big Credentialing: This requirement is for operations and maintenance services for a host of transportation vetting and credentialing systems: Technology Infrastructure Modernization (TIM), the Transportation Vetting System (TVS), and the Screening Gateway (Sg).
  • The Integrated Logistics System requirement, also a very mission-critical requirement that secures logistics and maintenance for airport checkpoint technology. The current model leverages the services of a single integrator for operational maintenance for the Transportation Systems Equipment.
  • Another critical requirement includes Precheck expansion. The agency seeks the capability to vet TSA Pre✓® applicants by biometrics, as well as means other than biometrics.
  • The agency is also finalizing its strategy to satisfy multiple information technology requirements that were previously satisfied by the DHS EAGLE II contract and the agency’s OASIS contract. This strategy will likely be communicated to industry over the next two months.

HS Today: For ILS, are you looking at replicating that model going forward?

Brisbon: TSA is open to a model that is efficient, effective and mitigates risks to the aviation security mission. As you can imagine, sustaining the operation of the technology at airport checkpoints is critical to the safety of the traveling public and TSA’s aviation security mission.

HS Today: What’s your message to industry overall?

Brisbon: When TSA issues RFIs, the agency looks forward to robust industry response. These responses further inform requirements prior to issuance of a formal solicitation. The agency wants to hear if there are best practices that can be incorporated into the requirements. As well, we’d like to know if there is a need to clarify any ambiguities in our requirements. Clarifying these complexities will enable industry to provide best-in-class solutions and expertise that are on target to meet the specific mission need. We’d also like to know of commercial processes or technologies that will afford new levels of efficiencies and effectiveness in executing the agency’s mission.

As a second message, we’d like to see increased mentoring and partnerships between large businesses and small businesses. These relationships aid in the maturation of small-business internal processes, which, in turn, adds significant value to the successful performance of these small businesses.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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