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Homeland security/Law enforcement > 47. Border Security

Delaying proposed investments for future acquisitions of border surveillance technology until the Department of Homeland Security better defines and measures benefits and estimates life-cycle costs could help ensure the most effective use of future program funding.

Why This Area Is Important


Securing the Arizona portion of the approximately 2,000-mile southwest border that the United States shares with Mexico—while keeping illegal flows of people and drugs elsewhere under control—is a top priority for the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Following the 2011 cancellation of CBP’s costly Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), CBP has taken steps to develop and implement a new Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan (the Plan) for the remainder of the Arizona border. This Plan is the first step in a multiyear, multibillion- dollar effort to secure the southwest border. The Plan is intended to guide the identification, acquisition, and deployment of additional surveillance technology, as well as any modifications needed to adjust them to varying terrain along the Arizona border to enhance situational awareness of illegal intrusions. CBP requested $242 million to fund the new Plan for fiscal year 2012 and estimates that the total costs of acquiring and maintaining all of the proposed new systems for the Arizona border over their expected 10-year life cycle will be about $1.5 billion.

CBP began development of SBInet in 2005 as a combination of surveillance technologies that relied primarily on radar and camera towers to create a “virtual fence” along the southwest border in order to enhance CBP’s capability to detect, identify, classify, track, and respond to illegal breaches at and between land ports of entry. After 5 years and a cost of nearly $1 billion, SBInet systems are now deployed along the 53 miles of Arizona’s 378-mile border with Mexico that represent the highest-risk area for illegal entry attempts.

Since its inception, SBInet experienced continued and repeated technical problems, cost overruns, and schedule delays, which raised serious questions about the program’s ability to meet CBP’s needs for surveillance technology along the border. GAO issued 26 reports and testimonies identifying operational and program management weaknesses that contributed to SBInet’s performance shortfalls, including cost overruns and schedule slippages. For example, as GAO reported in November 2008 and June 2010, deficiencies existed in CBP’s timely preparation and completion of key acquisition documents essential to setting operational requirements, identifying and mitigating risks, and establishing the cost, schedule, and performance requirements of the project and the technology to be delivered.[1] In May 2010, GAO concluded that it was unclear whether the department’s pursuit of SBInet was a cost- effective course of action, and whether it would produce expected results on time and within budget. In part based on these concerns, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced the cancellation of further procurements of SBInet systems in January 2011.

Given the previously reported challenges and eventual cancellation of SBInet, and the fact that similar challenges could affect CBP’s current plan to acquire and deploy surveillance technology, GAO analyzed CBP’s business case for its new initiative. This business case is important in light of DHS’s overall management of acquisitions. GAO has reported that DHS faces significant challenges in managing its acquisitions, including programs not meeting their cost, schedule, and performance expectations. Further, strengthening its acquisition management process would help DHS to deliver critical mission capabilities that meet identified needs on time and within budget, including helping to reduce the cost overruns and schedule delays that DHS continues to experience in many of the major acquisition programs GAO has reviewed.[2]

[1]GAO, Department of Homeland Security: Billions Invested in Major Programs Lack Appropriate Oversight, GAO-09-29 (Washington, D.C.: Nov. 18, 2008) and Department of Homeland Security: Assessments of Selected Complex Acquisitions, GAO-10-588SP (Washington. D.C.: June 30, 2010).

[2]GAO, Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue, GAO-11-318SP (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 1, 2011) and GAO-10-588SP.

What GAO Found


CBP’s proposed approach is at an increased risk of not cost-effectively accomplishing its goal in support of Arizona border security because CBP has not provided support for its business case for investing in the Plan. As GAO reported in November 2011, CBP has taken some steps to develop a business case for the Plan, but the agency has not (1) documented the analysis justifying the specific types, quantities, and deployment locations of border surveillance technologies proposed in the Plan in accordance with Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government; (2) defined the mission benefits or developed performance metrics to assess its implementation of the Plan; or (3) developed a robust life-cycle cost estimate that can be relied on for the purposes of budget requests for fiscal year 2012 and beyond.

CBP program officials developed and proposed the Plan without documenting the analysis justifying the specific types, quantities, and deployment locations of border surveillance technologies proposed in the Plan. These technologies include a mix of currently employed technologies, such as unattended ground sensors, as well as new alternatives, such as Integrated Fixed Tower systems (that include fixed towers, cameras and radar, a data communications network, facilities upgrades, information displays, and an information management system). According to the Plan, CBP will begin acquiring and deploying three Integrated Fixed Tower systems in Arizona in 2012, with two others to be deployed by 2015, depending on funding availability. Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government call for agencies to promptly record and clearly document transactions and significant events to maintain their relevance and value to management in controlling operations and making decisions and to ensure that agency objectives are met. The senior CBP official responsible for the program’s acquisitions told GAO that he believed the process used to develop and support the plan justified acquisition decisions called for in the Plan. However, documenting the analysis justifying the specific types, quantities, and deployment locations of border surveillance technologies proposed in the Plan would allow an independent party to confirm the process followed, and to assess the validity of the decisions made.

The Secretary of Homeland Security reported to Congress in January 2011 that the Plan is expected to provide situational awareness for the entire Arizona border by 2014. However, CBP officials have not yet defined the expected benefits or developed measurable and quantifiable performance metrics which could show progress toward achieving that goal.[1] In September 2011, CBP officials reported that they are developing new measures to determine whether and how investments impact border security. They acknowledged that since large investments have been made in border security, it is critical to assess the impacts these investments have had on improving border security, as well as projecting the additional impact future investments will have on their ability to manage the borders. However, CBP officials had not yet determined the key attributes of these new measures. The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance emphasize the need to ensure that information technology investments produce tangible, observable improvements in mission performance.[2] Additionally, the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) established a new, cross-cutting, and integrated framework for achieving results and improving government performance.[3]Without defining the expected benefit or establishing metrics, CBP’s ability to assess the effectiveness of the Plan as it is implemented may be limited.

Finally, while CBP officials have taken steps to develop a cost estimate for the Plan, because they did not determine a level of confidence around the estimate, it may not be realistic or sufficient for the purposes of budget requests for fiscal year 2012 or beyond. GAO reported that CBP’s cost estimate did not fully comply with related best practices. GAO’s Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide and OMB guidance emphasize that reliable cost estimates are important for program approval and continued receipt of annual funding. High-quality cost estimates should be well documented, comprehensive, accurate, and credible.[4] Specifically, GAO reported that CBP officials took steps to develop a comprehensive and accurate cost estimate. However, the actual data used to determine the estimate were not always shown. As a result of insufficient documentation, the validity and reliability of the estimate cannot be verified. In addition, because CBP officials did not follow other best practices for cost estimation, the estimate for the plan is likely to be unrealistic. Until CBP determines a robust life-cycle cost estimate for the Plan in accordance with best practices, it will be difficult for CBP to provide reasonable assurance regarding the reliability of CBP’s expected future cost estimates for border surveillance technology.

[1]According to OMB Circular A-11, performance measurement should include program accomplishments in terms of outputs (quantity of products or services provided) and outcomes (results of providing outputs in terms of effectively meeting intended agency mission objectives), as well as indicators, statistics or metrics used to gauge program performance. See OMB, Preparation, Submission, and Execution of the Budget, Circular A-11 (Washington, D.C.: August 2011).

[2]Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, 40 U.S.C. §§ 11101-11703, and OMB Circular A-130, Management of Federal Information Resources (Washington, D.C., Nov. 30, 2000).

[3]Pub. L. No. 111-352, 124 Stat. 3866 (2011).

[4]GAO, Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide: Best Practices for Developing and Managing Capital Program Costs, GAO-09-3SP (Washington, D.C.: March 2009).

Actions Needed

To increase the likelihood of successful implementation of the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan, minimize performance risks associated with the new approach, help justify program funding, and increase the reliability of CBP’s cost estimate, GAO recommended in November 2011 that the Commissioner of CBP

  • determine the mission benefits to be derived from implementation of the plan,
  • develop and apply key attributes for metrics to assess program implementation; and
  • update its cost estimate for the Plan using best practices.

In addition, Congress may wish to consider

  • limiting future program funding until CBP has more fully defined the benefits and costs of its new Plan for Arizona. As part of our routine audit work, we will track agency actions to address these recommendations and report to Congress.

How GAO Conducted Its Work


This information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the products listed in the related GAO products section. GAO reviewed key program planning documents CBP relied on to support its new approach to identifying, acquiring, and deploying surveillance technology and compared them with requirements in DHS acquisition regulations. GAO also interviewed CBP officials responsible for assessing the need for and documenting the cost, operational effectiveness and suitability of proposed systems to support its Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan, and for identifying appropriate metrics to assess progress in border security. GAO reviewed cost and budget documents CBP relied on to support cost estimates for technology alternatives and interviewed program officials and contractors responsible for estimating the cost of future investments in surveillance technology, specifically the life-cycle approach, requirements development and management, test management, and risk management. GAO also compared this information to relevant federal guidance and leading industry practices.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact


GAO provided a draft of its November 2011 report as well as this report section for review and comment. DHS agreed with GAO recommendations and identified steps officials planned to take to implement them, along with estimated dates for their completion. Regarding the recommendations that CBP determine the mission benefits to be derived from implementation of the Plan and develop and apply key attributes for metrics to assess the program’s implementation, DHS concurred and stated that CBP plans to develop a set of measures by April 30, 2012, that will assess the effectiveness and mission benefits of future technology investments. Such action should address the intent of the recommendations. Regarding the recommendation related to updating CBP’s life-cycle cost estimate using best practices, DHS concurred and stated that CBP was preparing individual project cost estimates for the two largest elements of the Plan and will complete these actions by April 30, 2012. While these actions are positive steps, they do not fully address the recommendation that DHS implement best practices for cost estimates for the entire Plan, which is still needed to fully understand the impacts of integrating these separate projects.

For additional information about this area, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-6912 or

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