Late Friday night, the Department of Homeland Security released the much-anticipated solicitation for the Southwest Border Wall. Actually, it released two Requests for Proposal (RFPs) – one for a “Solid Concrete Border Wall Prototype” and one entitled, “Other Border Wall Prototype.” As the Associated Press noted:

“Both require the wall to [be] sunk at least six feet into the ground and include 25- and 50-foot automated gates for pedestrians and vehicles. The proposed wall must also be built in such a way that it would take at least an hour to cut through it with a “sledgehammer, car jack, pickaxe, chisel, battery operated impact tools, battery operated cutting tools, Oxy/acetylene torch or other similar hand-held tools.”

These simultaneous IDIQ-type solicitations contain largely identical language calling for the design and building of mock-up and prototype structures near San Diego, California. The main difference between them is that one asks for a solid concrete wall and the other for a “see-through” structure.

“See through,” you ask? The solicitation calls for “a see-through component/capability to the wall that facilitates situational awareness but does not negate the requirements listed” in other sections of the RFP. It is my understanding the request for this type of structure emanated from Border Patrol officers who want to watch activity on the other side of the border without the necessity of additional technology, such as aircraft or tower-based cameras.

From an operational aspect, this makes great sense. From a political aspect, however, the optics aren’t all that great. A “big, beautiful concrete wall” as described in the presidential campaign didn’t seem to contemplate any see-through characteristics, so maybe President Trump is actually listening to the Border Patrol agents who are on “The Line” (as it is called) at the U.S.-Mexico border. Situational awareness has a direct impact on an agent’s safety and is too important to get caught up in political theatrics.

If you read RFPs on a frequent basis (and may God bless you, if you do), one sees that most of this RFP’s language is right out of the standard DHS templates. There seemed to be a lot more verbiage under the “Buy American” sections than I have seen previously, or maybe I was noticing it more, given the recent press coverage on this issue.

The procurement approach in these RFPs is in line with DHS’ previous statements. The prototype project will move forward in two phases.

Phase I requires the submission of Concept Papers to include Qualifications Statements. These are required to be submitted before 4 PM on March 29, 2017. The concept paper/qualifications must discuss the bidder’s (1) Demonstrated Experience, (2) Management and Technical Competence and, (3) Prototype Concept Approach. Item (3) is the most important element to be evaluated. This approach will likely attract a large number of bidders given past performance is less important.

Phase II begins after the government completes its Phase I evaluation. The RFP says the government will perform a down-select of Phase I concept papers/qualifications and request Phase II submissions from only those offerors who are deemed to be the most highly qualified. The government intends to invite up to 20 offerors from among those who submitted Phase I papers/qualifications into the Phase II proposal and evaluation process. DHS contemplates that not all bidders will be asked to go forward into Phase II. They say that only the bidders with “the most highly rated Phase I concept papers/qualifications will be included in the down-select and will be notified accordingly.”

The solicitation is clearly on an expedited fast track. According to the Statement of Work (SOW) attached to the RFPs, Phase II selectees will be required to build a 10×10’ mock-up structure within two weeks of award of a Notice to Proceed under the IDIQ Task Order. At the same time, the awardee must build a 30’ prototype wall (at least the solid concrete one) within 30 days of the notice to proceed. In government-time, 30 days for construction after NTP is unheard of. Construction of a mock-up within two weeks of NTP is the equivalent of a nano-second in a normal acquisition cycle. Doing both things at the same time is almost unprecedented.

One of the most interesting and, in my limited experience, unusual comments in the RFP is found in Section L on page 39. Rather than try to hide the controversial nature of this project (as is too often the case with risk-averse federal contracting officers), DHS comes straight out and provides excellent insight into their thinking – and good for them for doing so. While it is unclear how the exemplar questions they raise will be factored into the evaluation criteria, it is wonderful that they are so transparent in their intentions. Here is what they say that leads me to give them a big “attaboy:”

“The Government has prepared a set of exemplar questions to be considered during proposal review. These exemplars are not designed to be all-inclusive, but are intended better to assist offerors in understanding certain areas of focus. In drafting Sections L and M of this RFP, the Government has intended to synthesize the spirit and intent of questions like these:

  • Describe how your proposed border wall design meets or exceeds CBP’s performance requirements for the border wall prototype design (e.g. 6 feet anti-dig/anti-tunnel)
  • Describe your experience executing high profile, high visibility and politically contentious design build projects
  • Describe your experience constructing tactical infrastructure (e.g. fencing, roads, drainage, lights, etc.) on the southwest border
  • Describe your design-build experience constructing projects in challenging (e.g. steep slopes up to 45 degrees) and or inaccessible terrain on the southwest border.”

The second bullet point (in bold) tells me that DHS is well aware of the potential political consequences for any contractor interested in bidding on this project. That is a HUGE change in the way procurement officials typically address sensitive issues. Was this forward thinking? Perhaps. It could also be the result of DHS learning that major companies have already publicly stated their intentions to No-bid the border wall contracts due to unprecedented internal and external pressures. In my view, DHS’s candor and transparency ought to be commended, whether you think a wall should be built or not. Other DHS agencies (like TSA) should follow this practice of taking into account pressures on industry when solicitations are released for bid.

Far too frequently, potential bidders for federal work are left scratching their heads asking, “What are they thinking?” There are a lot of questions that remain to be answered with regard to these solicitations, but the “what are they thinking” question is not one of them.

CBP’s Border Patrol and Air and Marine (BPAM) Program Management Office (PMO), within the Office of Facilities and Asset Management (OFAM), is managing the Border Wall solicitations. They have the primary responsibility for managing the planning, leasing, construction and sustainment of real property for the United States Border Patrol (USBP) and Air and Marine Operations (AMO) facilities and tactical infrastructure (TI).

Unless the time is extended, questions about the RFPs are due to DHS no later than 4pm on March 22.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More
  • Larry Barfield

    You nailed it, Dave. Government must treat industry as a partner and vice-versa. Both have too many lessons learned from past experiences to ignore. FYI, I’m still scratching my head on this one!