Bureaucracies waste money, and there are few bureaucracies bigger than the Department of Homeland Security. A recent DHS Inspector General report found that the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate mismanaged and prematurely cancelled a biodetection project with NVS Technologies, Inc., effectively wasting $23 million. The IG said in its report, “Program managers did not document contract oversight because S&T does not have adequate policies and procedures governing contract management.”
Normally, I’d stomp my feet and rail against the wastefulness of big government. In this case, however, the IG’s findings should be taken with a dose of understanding. Here are three reasons why we should cut S&T some slack.
- A government biodetection project is one of the hardest things to get right. BioWatch, the nation’s current system of biodetection technologies, is an enormous waste of money. There are aerosol sensors and filters around the country that are manually collected every day and tested in a lab for dangerous elements, a process that leaves a 12-to-36-hour window between when a dangerous agent is introduced into the environment and when we find out about it. Gen 3 was supposed to be an upgrade to the labor-intensive BioWatch program, but the DHS Office of Health Affairs (OHA), which administered the program, did a lousy job of pushing an emerging technology into the marketplace, for a variety of reasons. Gen 3 became such a disaster that Secretary Jeh Johnson had the good sense to cancel it almost as soon as he took the helm at DHS. All this is to say, DHS has long been challenged when it comes to biodetection.
- S&T has successful, ongoing biodetection projects. In 2013, I spoke with Dr. Anne Hulgren, who at the time was S&T’s Branch Chief of Chemical and Biological Research and Development. Hulgren described a new biodetection system under development, dubbed Detect to Protect (D2P). An autonomous two-tier sensing system, D2P constantly tests the air for dangerous particles. When one is found, it triggers the second sensor that compares the particle to a list of dangerous pathogens. And this technology works, returning no false positives during testing in the Boston subway. The point is, the cancelled project does not mean we are at square one when it comes to biodetection research and development.
- Why did the IG launch an investigation into the management of this project? Word has it that it was the Directorate itself that asked the IG to look into a mishandled project. S&T acknowledged that there was a problem and went to the Department’s inspector for a formal investigation. A federal agency made a mistake and asked for outside support in figuring out why? That’s almost breathtaking in its show of humility and good governance (because it is so divergent from the normal government tactics of blame-dodging and PR damage control).
There are many federal, state, and local projects that deserve heavy criticism and public outrage for their reckless waste of taxpayer money. S&T’s cancelled biodetection project is not one of them. The IG report offered actionable recommendations for how to keep future projects from failing for want of better management. S&T agreed. Lesson learned, case closed.