ICE to restart a key element of $800 million, multiyear IT program

Monday - 2/10/2014, 4:04am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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Officials in the Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement directorate said last week they are making a course correction on a technology modernization project the agency deemed its highest IT priority.

ICE decided a central element of its approach over the last six years was unworkable. The agency spent $64 million on developing a custom-built system.

The system in question is called TECS, and it has been around in its current form since 1987. Its primary users are ICE and Customs and Border Protection, both of which came to the conclusion several years ago that the system was becoming too costly to maintain and too technologically obsolete for mission-critical day-to- day use.

ICE and CBP decided to pursue separate acquisitions to modernize the government- developed system, and federal auditors have discovered serious problems with both.

In ICE's case, an internal review and an outside examination determined last summer that ICE's designs for case management — the most important element of its share of TECS modernization — were not technically viable. So, the agency said Thursday it's pivoting from yet another custom-built software to a commercial-off-the shelf approach.

Thomas Michelli, ICE's chief information officer, assured members of the House Homeland Security Committee Thursday that the $60 million spent thus far had not been entirely wasted. Much of the money, he said, has been spent to construct a new database system and interfaces to the more than 80 other federal systems TECS must communicate with.

The agency still hopes to make use of those advances in conjunction with whatever solution it ultimately buys.

"This is equivalent to, if you're building a skyscraper, the foundation. It's very fundamental for any new system, and we have that in hand," he said. "What we don't have is the first floor. So, of the $60 million that we spent, about $20 million was for code development. We made the decision that it was not a sustainable solution, and we have to look at other alternatives. So what we learned when we went out to do market research is that the market has changed and that there are commercial, off-the-shelf programs that we can now use. Our agents are excited at what they see. And in fact, by moving from the custom co-development to a commercial off-the-shelf solution, very early estimates are that we could save money over the life cycle cost estimate of the system."

RFI released

ICE estimated its share of TECS would cost $818 million, and Michelli estimated switching to a commercial acquisition will shave that down by 10 to 20 percent.

On Wednesday, the agency issued a request for information in pursuit of that COTS approach. ICE wants to make a new award by June, and both CBP and ICE say they still believe they can leave their 1980s mainframe system behind by 2015.

A December review by the Government Accountability Office was highly critical of both agencies for their approaches to TECS modernization.

CBP says it has already begun to deliver capability in its $693 million program, but GAO pointed out that the agency already is rebaselining its program for the second time in the past year, changing the acquisition's delivery dates and expected capabilities.

David Powner, GAO's director for IT management issues, said the troubles with TECS boil down to two fundamental problems: poor program management and poor governance.

ICE and CBP, he said, were largely on their own paths, and until recently, senior officials in the agencies and at DHS had little understanding of what was actually happening in the major acquisition effort.

"These governance bodies clearly were not getting complete information to assess program risks, and their assessments were way too rosy," Powner said. "The undersecretary [of Homeland Security's] assessment for both acquisitions was deemed low risk in July of 2013. The latest CIO assessments were better but not much, calling the CBP acquisition moderately low risk and the ICE program medium risk. It was quite clear during our review that the ICE program was high risk at that time. Moving forward, both programs need to establish solid baselines so that Congress clearly knows what we are spending and what exactly is being delivered when, to better support our CBP officers and ICE agents."

Powner said CBP missed the mark by not effectively managing schedule and contractor performance risks on its side of the $1.5 billion program.

Both agencies waited until they were years into the TECS modernization effort before they created reasonable ways to limit the number of requirements.