In late 2007, I wrote that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secure Border Initiative's SBInet aka "virtual fence" project was in the bottom of the fifth inning of a baseball game, and was down 8-0. It wasn't a matter of whether the project was going to be terminated, only when and at what final cost.
Well, after spending over $770 million, several re-planning efforts and re-failures, possibly cooking the testing results, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have come to the conclusion that maybe they ought to really, really seriously think about finally terminating SBInet.
Testifying before the US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Alan Bersin, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, admitted that the virtual fence was "not a goal that was practicable" in the near term, press reports state.
How long is the "near term"?
Well, according to this article in HSToday, Commissioner Bersin compared the problems with SBInet to technology projects that were very hard to do in the 1970s that we can now do pretty well today. So, say, 20 years or so. We can therefore expect another version of the virtual fence to be proposed by the DHS somewhere around 2030 - 2035.
"By any measure, SBInet, has been a failure - a classic example of a program that was grossly oversold and has badly under delivered."
"Hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money so far has been wasted. There has been a lack of oversight and a lack of accountability. The virtual fence has been a complete failure."
Commissioner Bersin said that he agreed with their assessment, explaining that the failure of SBInet was due to an inability to integrate disparate technologies. Quoting from HSToday, Commissioner Bersin said:
"What has not worked is the total integration of technology from each of the areas along the border into an overall system that would permit a central monitoring and control--that technology integration at the very broadest level has been the complete failure the committee described."
Now, I find that statement an interesting admission of the part of DHS.
For if you remember, SBInet was said from its inception to be a technologically-low risk project according to both the prime contractor Boeing ("Boeing's solution concentrated on using proven, low risk, off-the-shelf technology..") and the DHS ("... we believe that the selection of the Boeing proposal validates the approach for acquiring a low-risk technological solution.")
Again as I noted in 2007, the approach used was: "Sort of like saying I am going to build a car using a Honda Accord engine, a Ford F-150 chassis, a GM Saturn Vue interior , etc., and then claiming the resulting effort is low-risk. Makes sense to me, although there is this small issue of integration, eh?"
It's taken almost four years for DHS to figure out there might be a major, technically unfeasible systems engineering integration problem? Talk about hope (and politics) overcoming good engineering sense.
Even after calling the project a complete failure, Commissioner Bersin would not say that the SBInet contract was going to be terminated, since he could not render judgment on a legal issue.
I expect that at best, the contract won't be extended rather than be terminated outright.
DHS could stand to learn some IT management lessons from the Veterans Affairs Department, however.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.