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New Border Security Technology Consortium promoting CBP’s use of ‘Other Transaction’ authority
As it tries to develop and deploy advanced technologies to detect underground tunnels, establish interoperable communications, authenticate travelers’ identities as they walk toward a port of entry – or to overcome a host of other challenges -- CBP has come to recognize that it needs to make its procurement processes much more streamlined.
If it takes 12 to 18 months to award a contract under “full-and-open” competition, experts say, CBP simply won’t be able to keep up with the ever-evolving threats and schemes it confronts at the border.
To address this vexing situation, a group of large and small contractors, academic institutions, research firms and consulting businesses has established a new organization that it calls the Border Security Technology Consortium, or BSTC. This Consortium has begun an effort to convince CBP officials that they should take advantage of a specialized, rarely-used contracting vehicle, known as “Other Transactions,” authority, which could enable the agency to issue awards for pilot programs, prototypes and advanced R&D efforts on an expedited basis.
A contract awarded as an “Other Transaction” does not need to comply with the same heavy-duty cost accounting standards and cumbersome Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs) that are traditionally applied to federal government contracts.
“When you read the [Other Transaction] legislation, the idea was to set up an environment that would cut through all of that,” explained Merv Leavitt, a former DHS official who now works for SCRA, a non-profit research organization based in Columbia, SC, which is spearheading the newly-formed Consortium. Leavitt spoke with Government Security News by phone on June 19. He noted that a task order issued under Other Transaction authority uses simpler, friendlier and more streamlined language than the FAR, and that the terms and conditions imposed on vendors usually don’t change from one contract to the next. All this makes it less-daunting and more cost-effective for small businesses to offer their most innovative ideas, and to try to do business with the federal government, he added.
The new Consortium is also striving to develop an environment in which its newly-recruited members can pool their talents and team with each other in pursuit of a specific government opportunity. In part, this might be worthwhile because complementary technologies developed by separate companies can be integrated together to create a more-capable overall solution. And, in part, it might address the fact that some small businesses simply lack the necessary cash to compete.
“A lot of companies with good ideas don’t have the means to bring them to a state where users can test them,” said Leavitt.
Micki Howard, who works with Leavitt at SCRA and has witnessed the success of numerous other SCRA-inspired consortia that are active in a wide range of technical sectors, sees the Border Security Technology Consortium (BSTC) as a means to marry the best technical ideas from small enterprises with the expertise, resources and facilities of large contractors.
“The greatest benefit of this Consortium will be its flexibility,” said Abby Mackness, of MorphoTrak, a biometrics company that is a member of the BSTC’s formation committee. “It’s always slower to go through a full-and-open competition process.”
Lynn Ann Casey, whose employer, Arc Aspicio, is a technology consulting firm which is another member of the BSTC’s formation committee, is similarly frustrated by the government’s traditional procurement process. “There are acquisition obstacles every time you turn a corner,” she told GSN on June 21. “The biggest obstacle we found is the time it takes to get a procurement on the street, which is about 18 months.”
Leavitt, of the SCRA, takes a long view of the situation. “There’s always been a frustration among small companies on how to do business with DHS,” he observed. To tackle this situation head-on, the SCRA has launched a two-pronged effort.
First, the BSTC has begun a campaign to convince CBP that it is in the agency’s own interest – in the case of small, targeted pilots, prototypes and R&D projects -- to take advantage of its legislatively-permitted Other Transaction authority. The Consortium says it has already received expressions of interest from CBP and held productive meetings on the subject with CBP procurement officials. Indeed, if CBP accepts the concept of utilizing Other Transaction authority, other DHS components -- such as the U.S. Coast Guard, TSA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the department’s National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) -- may decide to take similar steps, says Jeff Freeman, of DRS, a supplier of military and security products which has also joined the Consortium’s formation committee.
Second, the Consortium has launched an effort to recruit large and small vendors, system integrators, education and research institutions and other players in the border security technology arena as new members. The BSTC lists on its Website about a dozen members of its formation committee. “A handful of companies have signed on already,” Leavitt told GSN, “but we have 40 companies that are interested.”
As one might imagine, a diverse group of companies and organizations can identify any number of innovative technologies that they’d like to offer to CBP. On such a laundry list, Leavitt places reconnaissance and surveillance systems, especially those that can improve affordability; communications equipment, particularly that which can be used in remote areas; and power systems, which can drive a wide variety of gear. He also points to tunnel detection, as a CBP requirement for which small, cash-starved R&D firms may have the best answers.
Biometrics “on-the-fly,” which could enable port of entry personnel to authenticate individual people while they are walking, might benefit from CBP’s utilization of its Other Transaction authority, said Mackness, of MorphoTrak. She specifically cited “face-on-the-fly,” “fingerprint-on-the-fly” and “iris-on-the-fly” as technologies which could make life at the border a lot more efficient.
Similarly, Casey, of Arc Aspicio, nominated the whole field of mobile computing as one which could take advantage of streamlined contracting procedures. She believes CBP and Border Patrol personnel, who today must rely on their land mobile radios, and perhaps their personal cell phones, would benefit enormously if they could quickly consult information about travelers and specific suspects through state-of-the-art information-sharing systems. “I would love to see the government test some of these concepts quickly and cost-effectively,” she told GSN.
The Consortium has scheduled an industry workshop in Crystal City, VA, on August 2, 2012.
Leavitt, who has worked with Other Transaction authority many times in the past, acknowledges it is not the perfect solution in each-and-every instance. “This is only one tool for the government,” he said.
Nonetheless, Consortium members expect to receive the government’s twin decisions – on establishing Other Transaction authority and whether it is willing to work specifically with the BSTC -- in a matter of months. “We’re shooting for the end of the summer or early fall,” suggested Freeman, of DRS.
Leavitt thinks it may take a little longer. “We’re hoping to bring it to a conclusion this year, but folks are still considering it,” he explained. “We think it needs to happen this year, or the momentum may be lost.”