Customs and Border Protection Revamps Acquisition Strategy

By Stew Magnuson
The man charged with putting Customs and Border Protection’s house in order when it comes to its technology acquisition programs said simply transferring Defense Department practices over to the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t always work.

Mark Borkowski in July was named CBP’s first assistant commissioner for technology innovation and acquisition. Since being appointed to the position, he has installed a hierarchy of experienced acquisition personnel in the new division, including a former Marine Corps product manager, to ensure that programs are following standard practices. Also part of the lineup is a director to oversee systems engineering, a chief technology officer who came from the Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology directorate, and a Border Patrol agent charged with ensuring that requirements come from the field, not from the top down.

Industry may find it shocking that CBP is just now adopting acquisition practices that are common at the Defense Department and other DHS agencies such as the Coast Guard, he said at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association talk.

Putting words into the audience’s mouths, he said, “Oh my gosh, they’re talking about basics. They’re talking about stuff that should have been there a long time ago. They’re spending billions of dollars and now they’re talking about requirements? They’re talking about technology push and systems engineering?”

A former Air Force colonel who served in the acquisition ranks and at NASA in a similar capacity, he painted a picture of an agency that was in disarray when he came on board as the Secure Border Initiative program manager in October 2008.    

“One of the first things I set out to do was put a big map on the wall and try to figure what technologies we have on the border. You would be amazed how hard that was to do,” he said.

James Riordan, executive director of the program manager office, and a former Marine Corps Systems Command product director, said, “If you look across the rest of CBP and say, ‘Who’s the systems engineer,’ or ‘where is the systems engineer?’ You get a blank stare like ‘What is that?’” The roles of budget analysts, logisticians, and program managers were not well recognized in the department, he added.

Yet, there is skepticism when it comes to implementing best practices that come from the Defense Department, which has a spotty record itself, Borkowski said. Former military acquisition personnel can’t come in and simply say: “DoD does it this way.” The sarcastic response will be, “Oh yeah, and you’ve done a heckuva job,” Borkowski said.

Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Woody Lee, who is tasked with being the liaison between CBP field officers and the technology office, said many contractors accustomed to working for the Defense Department don’t understand that they are dealing with a law enforcement agency. Complex solutions to technology needs such as those used in the military are not going to cut it with CBP agencies. They don’t have the budget to operate and pay for the upkeep of expensive items, he said.  

One of the highest-profile projects Borkowski will have to tackle is the Secure Border Initiative (SBInet) virtual border fence, which has suffered several delays. A program review halted deployment for almost a year.

Borkowski did not have much good to say about prime contractors as the program moves forward. One of the key changes will be an open architecture where technology can be inserted into systems as needed.

“When I talk of open architecture, I don’t mean ACME prime integrator that I pay $5 million and will integrate it. I mean plug and play,” he said.  

“When I talk to folks about this, the folks who really seem to impress us are the innovative small businesses … I will tell you that the large businesses don’t get it,” he said.

The SBInet project was originally conceived as a system of cameras and sensors in the Southwest that would be connected to Border Patrol agents, who could see live streaming video and other feeds on a common operating picture mounted in their vehicles. The program was plagued by delays and technical problems from the beginning, including numerous false alarms from the sensors. Border Patrol agents, however, are using some of the envisioned capabilities in two Arizona sectors totaling 53 miles.

The prime contractor for the technology demonstration portion of the initiative was Boeing, which was initially given $20 million and wide leeway to set up 28 miles of the so-called virtual fence in the remote desert south of Tucson, Ariz. It has received more than $1 billion in contracts since then.

Boeing spokeswoman Jenna McMullin declined to comment on Borkowski’s remarks.

Topics: Homeland Security, Border Security

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