The Transportation Security Administration is moving forward with its ambitious agenda to strengthen security through modernizing systems and equipping its workforce, Assistant Administrator for Contracting and Procurement and Head of Contracting Activity Bill Weinberg told industry representatives at the Government Technology and Services Coalition’s annual meeting.
Weinberg began his current role at TSA in November 2020 as an acquisition veteran of the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce. “This is my third year at TSA, and I learn more about TSA all the time,” he said.
While travelers encounter TSA officers at checkpoints, the multiple layers of security behind the scenes that the public doesn’t see constantly adapt and evolve to meet the threat landscape and incorporate tech advances.
“We’re developing technology and deploying technology that is critical to the effectiveness of security at the checkpoints and screening process,” Weinberg said.
The Administrator’s Intent 3.0, released in July, is centered on providing flexibility and resiliency to further support the Agency’s mission and operations through 2025. It focuses on improving security and safeguarding transportation systems by being agile, innovative, rapidly deploying new solutions, and maximizing the impact of resources. The Intent is preparing TSA for the future by rapidly testing new ideas, processes, and technologies; and committing to the workforce by continuing to develop an organizational culture that promotes entrepreneurship and excellence.
To make progress in these priorities, TSA is focusing on improving threat detection and forecasting, developing a plan to enhance customer experience, collaborating with industry and the interagency to strengthen air cargo security, integrating security-by-design into Advanced Air Mobility systems, establishing One-Stop Security to streamline the traveler experience, improving business intelligence and by extension decision making, developing open architecture for screening, assessing and striving for risk-based and outcome-focused security, encouraging a positive security culture committed to compliance and self-correction, proactively detecting and responding to insider threats, enhancing capabilities of the Federal Air Marshal Service, improving organizational governance, exploring non-traditional approaches to resourcing, improving recruitment and hiring while sustaining a high-performing workforce, enhancing communications with the workforce, nurturing TSA’s culture to encourage innovation and collaboration, improving workforce retention, and revamping a human capital interface for candidates and hiring managers.
The Agency vows to focus on Outcome-Driven Contracting with a goal to assess TSA’s current approach and methodology to contracting for services to determine appropriate courses of action to effectively and efficiently meet mission needs. The objective is a streamlined and modernized service contracting process that “allows for adequate time to assess continuing out-year requirements.”
“It drives a lot of what we do,” Weinberg said of the Administrator’s Intent.
TSA has been especially driven to support the workforce. Higher pay was implemented for TSA employees on July 1, 2023, as part of the FY2023 omnibus. With the pay hike, TSA has seen attrition drop.
Noting the problem of agency attrition, Weinberg pointed out that, as is the challenge for other federal agencies, TSA is competing with the private sector for talent.
“We should be targeting the right people to fill national security positions, and we should pay people in line with national security jobs,” he said.
In 2022, TSA deployed 534 Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) units and added 243 Computed Tomography X-ray scanners at airport checkpoints – improving security effectiveness as officers screened an average of more than two million passengers per day. Effectiveness must be balanced with efficiency, and 99.4 percent of passengers waited fewer than 30 minutes at airport security checkpoints, while the same percent of passengers in TSA PreCheck lanes waited fewer than ten minutes.
The group of industry vendors providing TSA screening equipment “is a fairly small community,” Weinberg said. “Like every other agency, the IT portfolio is much bigger than that in terms of numbers of providers and opportunities.”
TSA recently released its Open Architecture Roadmap that defines the Agency’s long-term strategy to enhance screening capabilities with a design approach in which equipment components, such as software and hardware, are standards-based and interoperable to allow a wide range of industry partners to create improved subcomponents such as new detection algorithms, user interfaces, or reporting systems.
“We want to get that implemented as soon as possible — that would allow us to, among other things, use third-party algorithms in the screening process,” Weinberg said.
Weinberg credited TSA Chief Information Officer Yemi Oshinnaiye with executing a “new vision for how IT services should be provided to the programs – how it should be handled, with a lot of enterprise vision for the IT portfolio, such as centralizing licenses instead of every office obtaining their own.”
While addressing cybersecurity concerns, TSA is putting “a lot of work” into data management and visibility. Frontline staff are also in need of tech upgrades. “A tour of the airport training room shows they’re using desktops that can’t accept the latest software security patches because they’re too old,” Weinberg said, stressing the need to “refresh those things” while addressing ongoing issues such as breaking laptops and enabling employees to utilize mobile technology.
TSA also has projects in the physical spaces where officers operate. “You’ve got lights that are out, you’ve got air conditioning that doesn’t work, you’ve got places where there’s no office space,” Weinberg said.
Many minds are contributing to innovation within TSA, and the agency’s modernization is enriched by its relationship with industry.
“We try to do things to communicate with industry through the RFI process, through the process for the questions and answers, to get a little bit more information out there about our requirement,” Weinberg said.
“We need to show you that we did what we said we were going to do, and we made a decision that was in the best interest of the government …all we can do is be well-prepared if a decision is contested,” he added. “What I can tell people when they ask is that we don’t make procurement decisions cavalierly.”
Weinberg stressed that moving forward on projects is dependent on funding. “There are a lot of things that we need or want to do that we don’t have the money for, and that’s not a great answer because a lot of people have really good ideas,” he said.
Like other federal agencies, TSA is waiting to see what happens with its fiscal year 2024 funding, the impact plan the agency implemented for the last quarter of FY23, and the prioritization choices the agency may have to make. Congress averted a government shutdown with a continuing resolution but faces another funding deadline on Nov. 17.
“People got long-deserved raises, and we owe that to them to maintain that level of compensation,” Weinberg said.