Program to Modernize Immigration Info-Tech System Mired in Delays

By Stew Magnuson
When handing a passport to a Customs and Border Protection officer at an airport, the officer inputs the data into a 34-year-old information technology system using mainframe computers.

A joint CBP and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement program to modernize the system, which determines the admissibility of some 900,000 visitors and 465,000 vehicles daily is on its eighth year of development with little to show for it, and Congress is taking note.

“With the speed with which technology advances today, it shouldn’t take DHS eight years to complete an IT project,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and management efficiency.

CBP and ICE both have pieces of the new “TECS mod” program to develop, but neither has gotten very far, said David Powner, director of information and technology issues at the Government Accountability Office.

ICE has had to go back to the drawing board for its part of the system, formerly known as the Treasury Enforcement Communications System back when Customs was part of that department. After spending $60 million over four years, it has not delivered any working component, Powner said. A year before a 2015 deadline to deploy the system the agency has not produced a revised schedule or cost estimates. Twenty different federal agencies, many of then outside DHS, depend on the system.

CBP has done slightly better, he said. It did complete a secondary screening program. It hopes to finish its portion of the IT system by 2016 for a cost of $700 million.

But there is a larger issue, Powner pointed out. DHS, since its creation more than a decade ago, has had a rough time managing new technology acquisitions. In response to that, internal governance regimes designed to keep programs on track and within their budgets were put in place.

Powner said these bodies all failed to provide adequate oversight of the TECS Mod program.

The office of program accountability and risk management, two executive steering committees and office of the chief information officer “all failed to adequately address escalating problems associated with the TECS modernization effort,” Duncan said.

Powner said the governance bodies did not receive complete, timely and accurate data from ICE and CBP.

“ICE … operated without requirements management guidance for years,” Powner said.

GAO needs to know what is being delivered from contractors in terms of productivity and quality, and when it asks DHS components for that data, it doesn’t get the “right answers.”

“That is where I would say these executive steering committees are very important in ensuring that we have the appropriate contractor oversight for holding contractor’s feet to the fire,” Powner said.

Thomas Michelli, ICE chief information officer and assistant commissioner at the office of information and technology, blamed overly prescriptive, technically outdated and redundant requirements for the delays. The agency has completed a detailed evaluation that reduced 75 percent of the functional requirements without compromising capability, he testified.

Despite withering criticism from members of the committee, Charles Armstrong, CIO at Customs and Border Protection, said that “the CBP TECS Mod program has made significant progress, reached many milestones and the program is in good overall health.”

Topics: Homeland Security, Air Transportation, DHS Policy, Science and Technology, Science and Engineering Technology, Homeland Security

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