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​Illustration by Errata Carmona​​​​​​

Opening Up

​The research arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs your help—and it is not afraid to open up about those needs. In a new industry guide, the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) outlines its six key mission areas and details where its technology is lacking.

Moreover, the document serves as a call to action to the private sector for its help in discovering and developing technology that will help DHS tackle some of its biggest challenges.

DHS Senior Industry Advisor Kathleen Kenyon acknowledges that this isn't the first time DHS has reached out to the private sector for help in developing new technologies for government use, but this time around, officials are being more specific—and transparent—about the types of advancements they are willing to invest in.

"In the past, when we've talked to the private sector, many asked us what we need, and when, and how," Kenyon says. "This time, we took a concerted effort to go into a little more detail, to really explain to industry not only what we need but where we're investing our dollars and the types of technology we are looking for."

Technology-sharing partnerships between DHS and the private sector have long faced challenges due to slow procurement processes, cancelled contracts, and a lack of detailed communication about exactly what S&T is willing to invest in. The directorate is stepping up its efforts to build a bridge between the public and private sectors—in addition to the industry guide, it's conducting online and in-person outreach efforts. New contract rules that shorten application response times, as well as programs reaching out to nontraditional partners, take away some of the pain associated with working with the government.

One such effort is the Silicon Valley Innovation Program, which allows startups to apply for a contract and receive government feedback more quickly—many contracts are issued within 10 days, Kenyon says, allowing companies to make investment decisions early on.

"I do understand the industry's hesitancy to work with the government—we hear that quite a bit—so we want to take that information and translate it into ways that we can be more agile," Kenyon says. "We're trying to be a little quicker when it comes to working with us—speeding up deals and money and how we work and brainstorm together."

Kenyon stresses that public-private partnerships will be mutually beneficial, allowing private organizations access to government funding and business. Additionally, Kenyon notes that the industry is only as secure as the government, so a more capable public sector means stronger business.

"Industry leaders like those in ASIS are security professionals who are looking to secure their company and contribute to the larger effort of securing the nation," Kenyon says. "We want to make sure we are really reaching those who can be impactful in their own organizations to help secure the nation."

S&T's industry guide serves as a touchstone for the private sector and names six mission areas: securing aviation, securing borders, preventing terrorism, protecting from terror attacks, securing cyberspace, and managing incidents. Additionally, the document outlines the types of solutions it seeks from industry partners: future innovations, near-term capabilities, and new applications of existing technologies.

"The vast majority of what we're looking at is going to be near-term or adapting in some way existing technology, because we have urgent needs right now that our homeland security operators need to have in use and be out in the field," explains Melanie Cummings, deputy director of private-public partnerships. "We know there's a lot of low-hanging fruit out there in terms of sensing and detection technologies that might not be an exact fit for a particular application, but we can modify and combine some things to get them out on the streets."

This most recent push by DHS S&T to make meaningful connections with private sector manufacturers comes at a time when corporations are far outpacing the government in terms of research and development, Kenyon explains. Additionally, agencies are more often turning to off-the-shelf solutions, and Kenyon envisions a type of marketplace that would allow companies to tweak these solutions to perfectly fit governmental needs, as they would for any client.

"The private sector is far outpacing us when it comes to research and development and spending billions of dollars more than we are on it, and in some cases they're ahead of us," Kenyon says. "How do we tap into that knowledge base and technology development so that the technology they're developing can also be used by DHS?"

Kenyon describes the marketplace as one where a product could be used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and commercial companies alike. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has done this successfully for decades, she notes, but DHS's breadth and people-based agencies require more specific products.

"We have a much more diverse mission set, and that requires us to explain better to our customers and technology developers, and those who also commercialize technology and put it in the marketplace, what our needs are," Kenyon says.

Donald Zoufal, CPP, an independent consultant with CrowZnest Consulting, Inc., says S&T's efforts are a long time coming—and seem promising.

"There's always been a lack of communication, particularly on the government side, in terms of clearly articulating what its priorities are," Zoufal tells Security Management. "We don't know what the requirements and priorities are, so it's hard for us to attune our R&D initiatives to meet those requirements. I think this is a really positive step—it's recognition by the government that if they're more clear in providing direction about where they want to put their money, the market will positively respond to that. A lot of times DHS has paid lip service to the notion of partnership, but I see this as a really concrete effort to try to move that forward."

Zoufal worked at Chicago's Department of Aviation in the early 2000s and said the S&T industry guide touches on challenges he saw in airports—the upgrading of aviation security technology after 9/11 and the off-the-shelf purchases local agencies made to try to solve urgent problems in security.

"In a nutshell, this addresses a longstanding set of concerns that go back to when I was a security director at O'Hare and Midway, seeing big technology issues as inline baggage screening was brought in to replace other machines," Zoufal explains. "This cooperative spirit is much needed and will benefit the industry in being able to understand the direction the government wants to go in, but also for government to understand that there may be other technologies out there that are able to help."

S&T is looking ahead, too. The industry guide details its research and development investment outlook through 2021, outlining specific technologies it hopes to invest in.

 "We really want to look at and be aware of what's coming over the horizon, what technologies will be in place in five to 10 years, that are either going to change the way we operate, or that might potentially become threats to the homeland," Cummings notes.

However, some private sector organizations may be wary of working with the government to develop an idea from the ground up, Zoufal says.

"Part of the problem with working with the government is that as administrations change, priorities change, so the current priorities may not be the same if there's an administration change in three years," Zoufal explains. "When you think about R&D and the investment of time, money, pace, and the lag to develop a new product, it's a dedicated effort. Businesses tend to plan in long-term strategies, and the government may talk in those terms but oftentimes doesn't plan as well. Better communication will help with that."

Zoufal, who also teaches a course about homeland security technologies at the University of Chicago, says that the industry guide seems to be a sign of an attitudinal shift at DHS to connect with the private sector. However, the success of the outreach lies in the follow-through, he says.

"This part is the easy part—information sharing on the front end, brainstorming, discussing it," Zoufal explains. "But at the end of the day, the part of this process that will be the most challenging is addressing technology issues in the procurement cycle. Having technology tested and procured and fielded is the part that's probably more bedeviling than general intelligence about what they are looking for."

Cummings says that S&T has already begun committing resources to show the private sector that the partnership will be a successful one—from start to finish.

"We're putting a lot of our programs and non-R&D dollars into making sure that the technologies that we're developing are getting out in the field and being commercialized for those operators and end users who primarily buy in the commercial market," Cummings explains. "Beefing up commercialization, our transfer program, and working with the private sector manufacturing and distribution channels are priorities for us over the next fiscal year."  ​