The “great, great wall” President Donald Trump promised in his first address to Congress may seem a new or at least overdue idea to some, but in reality it’s just the latest iteration of an approach to securing the border that has resulted in a series of failures—a group the latest effort may soon join judging by its budget, schedule, and contracting issues. Anyone who’s been around Washington for more than a few Congressional cycles can’t help but notice the many similarities between this round and prior attempts to secure the border.
The latest chapter began on January 25 with an Executive Order from President Trump directing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to immediately begin planning and constructing “a physical wall on the southern border” using “all sources of Federal funds.” The order also directed DHS to produce a study addressing southern border security, “construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico,” and hire 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents as soon as possible.
A month later, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) posted a presolicitation notice on FedBizOps.gov, the website for federal government contract solicitations, telling bidders that Requests for Proposals (RFPs) would soon be posted “for the design and build of several prototype wall structures in the vicinity of the United States border with Mexico.” However, rather than describing the project in detail and asking bidders to provide cost estimates as standard construction RFPs do, CBP said they would be splitting the procurement process into two phases. In the first phase, CBP would ask interested parties to submit a “concept paper of their prototype(s)”; in the second, CBP would pick a group of companies to submit full proposals that included price tags. CBP would then select four to six prototypes from the Phase II group for construction contracts. The process was splintered further on March 17 when two separate RFPs were posted for a “Solid Concrete Border Wall” and “Other Border Wall.” The RFPs were identical with the exception of the “other” border wall design requiring a see-through component (view the border wall contracting timeline, below). Yet neither document explained how the new walls would work with existing infrastructure, technology, or DHS border security goals—an absence of strategy that government watchdogs have repeatedly shown leads to major problems.
Everything Old is New Again
This isn’t the government’s first attempt to bundle every facet of the extremely complicated border security challenge under a single program. The Integrated Surveillance and Intelligence System (ISIS) was a 1997 Clinton administration project cancelled after spending a half-billion dollars on cameras that didn’t work, among other things. DHS then launched the America’s Shield Initiative (ASI), which was essentially ISIS under a new name. Government Accountability Office reports found that both programs suffered from the same program management challenges, such as poor contract tracking and oversight.
Most recently, President George W. Bush and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff launched the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) in 2005 as a three-pronged plan incorporating infrastructure, technology, and personnel. Congress authorized the infrastructure element by passing the Secure Fence Act, which required DHS to construct 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers by the end of 2008. The personnel component took the form of 1,000 additional patrol agents. The technology element was embodied in SBInet, a “virtual fence” of networked cameras and sensors that would ultimately be cancelled in 2011 with little to show for the $1 billion spent on it.
The DHS Inspector General recently rounded up every report from their agency as well as from the GAO to point out similarities and flag lessons learned from SBI that should be applied to the new initiative. Here are the key takeaways, drawn from the IG report and our own research:
Lesson 1: Don’t depend too much on contractors.
In January 2006, DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson infamously told several contractors joining him on a conference call that “we’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business.” DHS released initial RFPs for SBI soon after, awarding the project to Boeing in a procurement arrangement known as Lead Systems Integration, or “spiral” contracting, in which Boeing was responsible not just for hiring and managing subcontractors but also for designing project requirements and evaluating its own performance. Congress limited such arrangements in 2008 after they led to a string of disastrous government programs including the Coast Guard’s Deepwater project and the Army’s Future Combat Systems.
The current process also leans heavily on industry input. DHS posted a Request for Information (RFI) on March 2 to “solicit ideas from industry and other partners for the more comprehensive long-term strategy related to the border wall.” This despite the fact that DHS already has a Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy—one the agency has requested billions of dollars for in the past. The current RFI was handled by DHS’s Procurement Innovation Lab, an initiative created in 2015 to bring a startup approach to government procurement that has led to crowdsourcing-style solicitations like that of the prototypes. DHS is particularly interested in ideas about financing, technology like sensors and cameras, and ways to bring economic benefits to the localities and individuals cooperating with DHS on the wall, according to the RFI.
Receiving ideas and input from contractors isn’t a bad thing, but DHS needs to have enough in-house expertise to make its own well-considered decisions and to cast a skeptical eye on rosy contractor estimates and proposals.
Lesson 2: Avoid open-ended and risky contract structures.
SBInet was a three-year Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract, a type that does not specify deliverables up front, but creates an umbrella under which deliverables are requested through “task orders.” IDIQ contracts came under intense scrutiny in recent years because they were frequently used in the absence of firm project strategies and resulted in cost and schedule overruns. The current wall projects will also use IDIQ contracts that extend five years from the date of award, with the first task order going toward construction of wall prototypes. Awardees will then compete for subsequent task orders. The individual contracts will each have a fixed price, and the value of the combined contracts isn’t supposed to exceed $300 million. Fixed-price contracts should only be used when requirements are well defined and predictable, however, which is not the case here.
Lesson 3: Be clear and specific about project requirements.
Operational requirements are the capabilities and products identified by the government as essential to a project, and which any prospective bidder must be able to fulfill. Oversight bodies found that CBP skipped some important steps in identifying SBInet requirements, such as establishing the scope of the program, acquisition strategy, and technological standards. “SBInet clearly illustrates that poorly defined and documented operational requirements…results in missed milestones and waste resources,” the IG stated in its report. “CBP’s missteps with SBInet’s planning should be a reminder of the importance of proper planning of major acquisitions and that acquisition controls should not be bypassed.”
CBP may need more than just a reminder, according to the IG report. Because of DHS’s trouble completing projects on time and on schedule, the agency created the Acquisition Life Cycle Framework and Office of Program Accountability and Risk Management in 2011 to apply some discipline to its contracting culture. The Framework establishes a four-phase process in which a review board evaluates a project’s progress before allowing it to move on to the next phase. The board gave the current border wall project the go-ahead to move past the initial stages of identifying basic needs, but, according to the IG report, said the project cannot graduate to the next phase without additional specifics about project scope.
Lesson 4: Haste makes waste.
Both SBI’s physical and virtual fences ran into problems by deploying on such a rushed timeline that they found themselves developing plans at the same time they were hiring contractors. Because DHS didn’t have a well-developed acquisition and contracting strategy in place, it was unable to provide cost estimates to lawmakers or the public. As a result, Congress threatened to withhold funds in 2008 until DHS could do so. RFPs for construction moved forward anyway.
The fact that the current border wall solicitations were issued without defined requirements or committed funding at the same time CBP was hammering out a strategy indicates it’s also going nowhere fast. Each RFP was updated over a dozen times with modifications: Some of those changes just moved back the deadline, while others responded to hundreds of questions potential bidders submitted to CBP, some asking for specifications as basic as wall height and land slope. CBP frequently answered such questions by saying the process of analyzing needs and potential solutions was ongoing.
As Congress begins the process of debating the fiscal year 2018 budget, support for the $1.6 billion requested by President Trump for the border wall is weak among many Members of Congress. Although the House included the funding in its version of the homeland security appropriations bill (along with $131 million for border technology, $100 million for additional border patrol agents, and $106 million for “aircraft and sensors” —more echoes of border strategies past), little appetite exists for the project in the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats alike are skeptical. Perhaps that’s because a few Senators have been around long enough to remember ISIS, ASI, and SBI. Let’s hope they are able to prevent history from repeating yet again.
The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is closely monitoring the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) expanded border security procurement efforts. The above timeline details publicly available information about DHS’s contracting process and will be updated from time to time.