SBInet is no teacher's pet
Troubled border project offers tough lessons
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Mar 06, 2008
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
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
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
- 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
Although completion was targeted for June
2007, the project stretched on for months
because of problems with radar, software and
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
"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
Despite such comments,
many observers say that
there is confusion about
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
Boeing officials declined
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
"This is a reflection of the department's lack
of maturity," Carafano said. "They have never
done anything like this before."Alice Lipowicz (email@example.com) is a
staff writer at Washington Technology.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.