An aerial view of temporary soft sided facilities under construction in Donna, Texas, April, 2019, for processing, care and transfer of record numbers of migrants. (CBP photo)

CBP Head of Contracting Navigates Crises, Border Wall and GSA Changes

Assistant Commissioner Diane Sahakian, the head of contracting activity within the Office of Acquisition, knew that when Customs and Border Protection officers were overwhelmed this past summer with housing children at their facilities, her team could jump in to help.

“It’s very easy for us to sit in our offices and think we know what we know, right? We only know what we usually buy, what they tell us to buy, but if they’re so busy, they can’t even stop to think about it,” Sahakian told HSToday at the Government Technology & Services Coalition’s recent CBP Day in Arlington, Va. “This is a whole space of mission where they’re running so fast,  going back and forth to Target every three days to get more things like diapers and snacks.”

“And then we go down and we see, well, you have some room here. Why can’t you load up?” she recalled. “Why can’t we do a mass buy for you with our bigger purchase cards and have it delivered so you don’t have to pick it up? The little things make a difference.”

A challenge for Sahakian was the 35-day government shutdown earlier this year, when the procurement office learned that 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; some of our best people left… we need to make sure they hang around and do the proper things to shut down,” she said. “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.”

Asked how the administration’s accelerated pace on border security measures poses challenges for procuring everything that’s needed, Sahakian noted that the office’s best people worked “like dogs” on the wall for four months, with lots of late nights.

“That first wall prototype – I’ve never seen a contracting effort like that,” she said. “We had two rooms full of people, hand in hand. And we don’t have enough manpower to do that for everything, but when something’s hot like that, that’s what we did and that’s why we were successful. It wasn’t run like we normally run things.”

The best thing that industry can do is “be one step ahead of us telling us what we need.”

“I think they need to open communications. If something’s going wrong, I want to know; let’s talk about it,” she said. “Also, I think this GSA thing is huge. It’s a huge change and I think a lot of vendors are going to be caught unaware. They need to see what they’ve got and be proactive with GSA… start changing their schedules before they get asked to change it when everybody else is.”

The first phase of the GSA schedule merger was completed last month and the third phase, when most players will feel the impact, is scheduled to be completed by July 2020.

“This impacts so many thousands of companies,” Sahakian noted. “So I think that for most people that’s the most important thing right now is getting on the right side of that GSA change. That’s what I would recommend.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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