Improving communication with the vendor community, finding more creative financing mechanisms, privatizing certain testing functions and continuing to strengthen the acquisition workforce are among the suggestions of a former senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official for making it easier for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to acquire technology more quickly from industry.
Michael Jackson, the former deputy secretary at DHS during the Bush Administration, tells the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security that Congress should authorize alternative financing operating lease agreements that would enable airport authorities and even airlines to purchase in-line explosives detection systems (EDS) for airports and terminals much faster than TSA can acquire the systems. After the airports and airlines acquire the systems, they would lease them to the agency for a certain term in order to recoup their investment while allowing TSA to meet the security needs of the country.
Jackson says that TSA eventually rejected a proposal by his consulting firm, Firebreak Partners, and others such as Southwest and Delta air lines, to pilot test this alternative financing model because the agency took a conservative view of federal regulations regarding leasing arrangements. He tells the panel that a legislative waiver enabling the agency to move forward with this type of alternative financing would “unlock very considerable benefits for TSA.”
Amid a constrained funding environment, the need to recapitalize existing in-line EDS systems, fund new in-line EDS, as well as meet checkpoint security needs, using the same federally-funded business models won’t work but alternative financing models will unlock enough private sector investment to get these in-line EDS projects done sooner and at lower cost, Jackson says.
Jackson also suggests privatizing the way DHS does equipment certification for the TSA, calling the current fragmented process too expensive for taxpayers and vendors seeking to have their various systems certified. For example, vendors must ship their equipment, at their own costs, to the Transportation Security Laboratory in New Jersey, to Tyndall AFB, Fla., for homemade explosives testing, to the Transportation Security Integration Facility near Washington, D.C., and then to an airport for field testing.
And in the end, “you either pass or fail and if you fail it’s unclear as to why,” Jackson says. And, once vendors fix a problem, they have to wait in line to start the process all over, he says.
This process keeps venture capital away from investing in security start-ups or early stage businesses, Jackson says.
In Europe the governments define the performance requirements and the testing is done by government and private labs, Jackson says.
For vendors in the U.S. it can be done on a fee-for-service model, he says. Or a private lab responsible for testing can also help a firm improve its equipment without the equipment being pulled out by the vendor and shipped back to their facility and then re-shipped to the lab for additional testing, he adds.
Jackson also says that DHS needs to begin employing open architecture models and open source standards for the technology it procures. He says the vendor community that supports TSA dislikes this approach but it is “potentially transformational.”
The idea is “To give TSA the mandate to insist that any new core explosive detection imaging equipment sold to TSA after a reasonable date certain must compile its image data outputs in an open-source format,” Jackson says. “Moreover, the manufacturers should be required to provide such additional software transparency as required to allow TSA to develop and deploy modular, common-use apps that would routinely upgrade explosive detection algorithms in its equipment.”
Finally, Jackson suggests that TSA create an “X-Prize” program whereby incentives would be created for vendors to develop and certify breakthrough technology, such as getting Advanced Technology X-Ray systems used at checkpoints to be able to identify liquid explosives in a carry-on bag.
“These prizes would be meaningful only if they were rewards for taking security to a noticeably higher level, not for incremental change,” Jackson says. “A given prize should be large enough to constitute a reward and an incentive.”