SBInet is no teacher's pet

Troubled border project offers tough lessons

Lessons from SBInet

  • Communicate often
    with users.
  • Manage expectations.
  • Understand spiral development.
  • Keep Congress and the
    public informed.

  • It has been a roller coaster few weeks for the
    Homeland Security Department's high-profile
    SBInet border surveillance system, and the
    ride is not over yet.

    On Feb. 22, DHS formally accepted Boeing
    Co.'s initial Project 28 segment of the SBInet
    surveillance system along 28 miles of the border
    between the United States and Mexico.
    Five days later, the Government Accountability
    Office issued a critical report.

    Headlines proclaimed SBInet a failure, and
    department officials scrambled to defend it,
    issuing numerous public statements endorsing
    SBInet.

    The controversy continues over whether the
    initial segment of the virtual fence and the
    overall project are effective.

    In the midst of this dust-up, there are many
    lessons contractors can learn about handling
    such complex projects.

    SBInet is a public relations disaster, said
    James Jay Carafano, senior research fellow at
    the Heritage Foundation.

    It could take weeks to sort out the mess.

    For example, two of GAO's
    strongest criticisms were that
    the $20 million Project 28
    segment does not fully meet Border Patrol
    users' needs and those users were not extensively
    consulted on the work.

    "You have to get to know the users," said Ray
    Bjorklund, senior vice president at FedSources
    market research firm, in McLean, Va.

    "Otherwise, you risk building a rope swing
    when the users wanted an inner tube."
    Does SBInet meet enough of its users' needs
    to be effective? And is the lack of user input
    the fault of DHS, Boeing or both? Experts say
    those responsibilities usually fall on the government's
    project managers, but it is too early
    to judge in this case.

    "Typically, you would look
    to the program officers for
    engaging with users at all levels," said Stan
    Soloway, president of the Professional Services
    Council.

    The ambitious SBInet project has been touted
    as one of the centerpieces of President Bush's
    strategy to stop illegal immigration and gain
    control of U.S. borders. Last year, White House
    officials strongly pushed for an immigration bill,
    and lawmakers pressed to have SBInet up and
    running as quickly as possible.

    But speed and success don't always go
    together in information technology contracting.
    Some observers believe the sense of
    extreme urgency worked against Project 28.

    "There was lots of pressure to move forward
    [on SBInet] along with the immigration bill,"
    Carafano said. "DHS was unrealistic with the
    deadline, and Congress threw fuel on the fire."
    Meanwhile, there are other lessons to learn
    from SBInet, according to experts in government
    IT contracting.
    • Communication with Congress and the
      public is paramount in large government
      IT projects, especially those that inspire public debate and controversy. Yet there
      are indications that Congress was left in
      the dark about a major change in direction
      midway through Project 28.
    • So-called spiral development projects ?
      which at least one expert said SBInet is ?
      address major goals by first developing a
      prototype. However, such models are not
      well-understood and might carry additional
      risks for contractors.
    • DHS, as a new department, still struggles
      to define and manage major programs.

    The SBInet project officially began in
    September 2006 when Boeing won the contract.
    It is the federal government's third
    attempt to deploy cameras, radar and other
    sensors along U.S. borders. The project is estimated
    to cost $30 billion to span the Mexican
    and Canadian land borders.

    After an initial system run-through in a laboratory,
    Boeing began installing nine mobile
    towers strung with cameras, sensors and communications
    equipment.

    Although completion was targeted for June
    2007, the project stretched on for months
    because of problems with radar, software and
    integration.

    INADEQUATE SOFTWARE

    For example, the software chosen for the common
    operating picture was not adequate to
    process incoming data from the cameras,
    radar and sensors, GAO said. "SBI officials
    told us that Boeing selected the system based
    on initial conversations with Border Patrol
    officials, but when deployed to the field,
    Boeing found limitations with the system,"
    Richard Stana, director of homeland security
    and justice at GAO, told Congress Feb. 27.

    Insiders say limited input from DHS' IT
    executives, rushed development and a drive to
    use commercial technology as much as possible
    contributed to the problems.

    The GAO report states that Project 28
    did not meet expectations, but DHS officials
    at the highest levels say it met contract
    requirements.

    "We are not mothballing Project 28. It did
    work," DHS Secretary Michael
    Chertoff said Feb. 28. "I envision
    that we will use this design in
    other parts of the border but
    not in the entirety of the
    border."

    Despite such comments,
    many observers say that
    there is confusion about
    SBInet's effectiveness.
    For example, DHS now
    describes Project 28 as a
    prototype, but in 2006 and early 2007,
    officials described it more broadly as a tool to
    support Border Patrol.

    Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman
    of the Homeland Security Committee, said the
    change in the project's goal only became
    known to him, though not officially, in October.

    "We began to hear suggestions that Project
    28 was just a 'demonstration project' or a 'test
    bed' for future technologies," Thompson wrote
    to Chertoff in December. If DHS' or Boeing's
    expectations of the project had changed, they
    needed to alert Congress, he said.

    "The department was aiming for a home
    run," said Jeremy Potter, senior analyst at market
    research firm Input Inc. "In the end, DHS
    was saying, 'We got a lot from Project 28. But
    we are not getting a home run.'"

    To avoid mixed messages, government
    clients and contractors should make a strong
    effort to keep Congress and the public
    informed of changes in expectations, said
    Sandy Levine, president of Advice Unlimited
    LLC, a public relations firm in Gaithersburg,
    Md., with a number of government IT clients.

    "Especially with sensitive, large projects,
    communications needs to be a priority from
    Day One," Levine said. "The best thing is to be
    proactive and transparent in communications."
    The impression that SBInet is a spiral
    development might be complicating
    Congress' and the public's reaction
    to Project 28.

    In SBInet's case, Boeing
    tackled an integration of
    great complexity under
    extreme environmental
    conditions.

    Boeing officials declined
    to comment.

    One of the keys to spiral
    development is keeping expectations
    low in the initial phase, as one
    would do with an experiment. "In spiral development,
    you would not expect the first phase
    to meet all the users' needs," Soloway said. "It
    was only a prototype; they were not committing
    the full amount of funding to it."

    Carafano agreed. "I don't think Project 28 is
    a failure," he said. "It was a test, not the full
    acquisition." The $20 million cost of Project
    28 is fairly minimal and should not be considered
    wasted spending because it did deliver
    effective technology, he added.

    The problems encountered with SBInet are
    not surprising considering the department's
    relative youth and inexperience, several
    observers say. DHS opened its doors March 1,
    2003, as a mix of 22 agencies and 180,000
    government employees.

    "This is a reflection of the department's lack
    of maturity," Carafano said. "They have never
    done anything like this before."

    Alice Lipowicz (alipowicz@1105govinfo.com) is a
    staff writer at Washington Technology.

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