DHS Bends Tradition for Innovation

August 1, 2016
By George I. Seffers
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Department officials pursue creativity on multiple fronts.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is on a mission to adopt innovation in an array of areas, including technology and acquisition. Officials hammered home that point during the AFCEA Homeland Security Conference in Washington, D.C., June 21-22. Creativity feeds the maturation process, and in some ways, pits innovation against tradition.

“The nature of innovation has changed. The private sector outspends the U.S. government three to one on technology development and innovation. And if you look at the actual innovation models themselves, they’ve evolved,” said Christina Murata, executive advisor for technology and innovation, Operations Support Office, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), while serving on an acquisition innovation panel. 

In some cases, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials are seeking innovative upgrades for legacy systems, including Einstein, an aging system designed to help agencies manage cyber risk. Phyllis Schneck, deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity and communications, National Protection and Programs Directorate, DHS, said the goal is to help Einstein detect, analyze and respond to anomalous activities much more rapidly than it is able to today. “Our mantra is from months to milliseconds,” she said.

The department also is adopting new biometrics technology at airports, reported John Wagner, CBP Office of Field Operations deputy assistant commissioner. Wagner told the audience that a pilot program at the Atlanta airport will focus on travelers leaving the country, something the United States has not traditionally done. The facial recognition system collects images that are then compared to photo identifications of travelers on the various outgoing flights. If successful, the pilot program could be expanded to other locations.

Additionally, the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate has joined the rush of government departments and agencies to Silicon Valley in search of innovation gold. The trend is to establish an office in the country’s technology capital to find creative contractors who do not normally work with the government. These entrepreneurs, usually with startup companies, are seen as capable of providing solutions government officials may not see from more experienced companies. “We have to think about reaching out to nontraditional performers to make sure we get best-in-class thinking for any of our complex problems,” Murata said.

In the words of one DHS official, the good thing about traditional government contractors is that they have learned to operate as government does, and the bad thing about those contractors is that they have learned to operate as government does. The DHS S&T Silicon Valley Innovation Program, which reaches out to the non-traditional businesses, has awarded four contracts since December and has three open solicitations, officials said. 

Those open solicitations include one for Internet of Things security. In addition, the Silicon Valley office seeks wearables to monitor the health and performance of crime-fighting canines working with the CBP. 

The third open solicitation also is for the CBP. The agency seeks a Global Travel Assessment system. “This is an open-source software program that we hope other countries will adopt for evaluating their commercial flying public in ways similar to what CBP currently does with our proprietary system,” Murata said.

To develop and deploy innovative technologies, the department also is turning to less traditional procurement practices. For example, the Silicon Valley Office, DHS S&T Directorate, has replaced written proposals with a much shorter process that allows companies to provide a 15-minute oral presentation, shortly after which the DHS can decide who receives awards. 

The Silicon Valley office is working closely with the recently created Procurement Innovation Lab, a virtual lab that allows experimentation with inventive procurement techniques and practices. It serves as a unique test environment for exploring and refining innovations in acquisition. Eric Cho, the department’s acquisition innovation advocate, told the audience that he likes thinking outside the box, but, “There is a box.” 

The trick is to find procurement processes that are allowed but often under used. Cho pointed out the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) actually do contain the word “innovation.” Furthermore, other authorities in addition to the FAR also are available.

The DHS is sometimes like a confused teenager, said Russell Deyo, undersecretary for management, but it is maturing and growing and changing in a number of ways. Innovation is the beating heart of growth, and in the coming years, innovation may be tradition. “You don’t usually think of government, DHS and innovation together, but we’re trying to move the needle,” said Melissa Ho, managing director, Silicon Valley Office, DHS S&T Directorate. 

For more from the AFCEA Homeland Security Conference, including video and presentations, go to

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