Customs and border agency tries new twist on industry days

By Aliya Sternstein

May 18, 2012

Customs and Border Protection has scheduled an all-day, atypical workshop Tuesday with prospective vendors to steer commercial funding toward technologies that could meet its future needs, CBP officials said. The Obama administration has proposed cutting border tech financing by $73 million in fiscal 2013.

During the past couple of years, CBP has held one-on-one meetings with many companies vying for a piece of the current $400 million purse, including suppliers of cameras, radar equipment, video analytics, video storage and data mining software, according to agency officials. Those discussions often veer into stream-of-consciousness brain-picking sessions -- and that’s exactly what companies told the agency they want more of, Mark Borkowski, CBP Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition assistant commissioner, told Nextgov.

“In a lot of those conversations, the representatives from industry say, ‘We would really like it if you could have some kind of an industry outreach, because you only do that when there is a procurement that is pending. We would rather have an opportunity to listen to you, not necessarily because there’s a procurement, but so we can posture ourselves.’ ” he explained.

Consequently, Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, international affairs staff and other agency personnel in a Washington conference hall next week will air their grievances about the state of border security and what they want to fix. CBP officials earlier in May announced a new border control strategy that shifts from deploying more guards and technology at the U.S. borders to using intelligence for pursuing areas of the border that present the greatest threats.

This is not the type of “industry day” where federal procurement officials provide further details on forthcoming contracts, although, if asked, CBP staff will take questions on specific projects, Borkowski said. On the flip side, contractors are not expected to reveal in front of the audience the technologies they have coming down the pipeline. Attendees are not likely to hear from CBP specifics about, for instance, automated checkpoint stations that scan retinas to allow entry. “We don’t want to foreclose the potential that a vendor has a solution to a problem that we hadn’t thought about,” he said.

Borkowski said he has been at about 1,000 individual informational meetings with vendors since 2008, when he was named executive director of the Secure Border Initiative program office, which oversaw a now-abandoned $1 billion virtual fence.

Many federal officials fear talking to vendors during the purchase process could run afoul of acquisition rules or disadvantage competitors. The Obama administration has made a point of trying to counter this perception with a myth-busters campaign that encourages early brainstorming sessions so that product solicitations mesh with the reality of the marketplace’s limitations. One reason CBP scrapped the Secure Border Initiative network was arbitrary stipulations -- such as the ability to detect 70 percent of incursions within a given field of coverage -- led to delays, cost-overruns and cameras malfunctioning when existing technologies could not meet those qualifications.

“There are a lot of people in government who get nervous about communicating with industry,” Borkowski said. “They think that somehow they are going to get a bill for the discussion.”

He finds it odd, he said, that officials are afraid to chat with industry executives when companies essentially are offering to make product investments on the agency’s behalf.

Next week’s forum could be envisioned as a live, in-person market survey. CBP officials will illustrate setbacks they are confronting in the hope businesses will craft technologies that can resolve them. Just a few of CBP’s current predicaments: hardware that rapidly becomes outdated and figuring out how to use technology at ports in a way that facilitates legal trade and travel.

“We’ll kind of give our view of the world and then we’ll get some clarifying questions from industry,” Borkowski said, adding vendors still will have the opportunity to schedule individual meetings. Part of the purpose of holding this symposium also is to aid smaller companies that don’t have the time or money for Washington appointments. The panel discussions will be webcast live so that out-of-town suppliers can submit questions online.

If the feedback after Tuesday’s experimental event is positive, CBP may hold similar sessions every six to nine months, Borkowski said.

By Aliya Sternstein

May 18, 2012