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America's Virtual Fence: A Failure in Design and Innovation

Posted by: Helen Walters on January 11, 2010

Steve Kroft put together a great piece on America’s proposed virtual fence along the border of the U.S. and Mexico for the weekend’s Sixty Minutes show. What particularly struck me was Kroft’s incredulous question to Mark Borkowski, Executive Director of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), who is overseeing the Department of Homeland Security’s implementation of the new system, the design of which was awarded to Boeing back in 2006. “I’m kind of amazed they’re building what’s going to be this multi billion dollar system for the border patrol and no one asked the border patrol what they wanted, what they needed or what would be helpful,” Kroft posited. Borkowski responded by acknowledging the “huge mistake” that had occurred in the development process, which no more accounted for the real needs of those on the ground than it did consider the harsh conditions in which the system had to work. As a result, Kroft reported, years and billions of dollars have been wasted (the program is still only in its early stages, when it should by rights have been completed by now). It’s a clear example of what happens when the innovation and design thinking process breaks down (or is ignored altogether). Here, gross assumptions were made, legwork was not done and the result is a billion dollar debacle. Boeing did not comment in the segment, but it was a real indictment of all the players involved, and a textbook example of the need to keep users at the center of a project from the outset rather than merrily barrel along clutching nothing more than a quiver full of received wisdom.

Reader Comments

Chris Finlay

January 11, 2010 4:51 PM

Pretty sickening but not surprising.

Still wonder why we can't create a better option than a fence. Am no expert on the matter but it would seem the integration of job seekers surely must be a better option than this mess. Yikes.

The U.S. government could do with a little integrative thinking from Roger Martin to find some new options.

Ok, ok, a lot!

Rob Curedale

January 11, 2010 5:16 PM

Innovation is about creating something useful. If it is not useful then it is not innovation.

There is a similar story about the management of the hand held devices used in the census.

David Olive

January 11, 2010 7:07 PM

Mr. Kroft was factually inaccurate when he said that the Border Patrol was not "asked what they wanted." Well before the RFP was published, the Chief of the Border Patrol and other DHS officials spoke at a very well attended Industry Day event and made it clear what the Border Patrol wanted from the SBInet program. The technical requirements were spelled out in the procurement documents. Border Patrol agents were made available to each team that submitted a bid - all part of the due diligence effort. Unfortunately you have taken Mr. Kroft's inaccuracy and perpetuated it, extrapolated on it and made the situation worse. I hope you would agree that good design should not repeat the mistakes of others.

Helen Walters

January 11, 2010 8:40 PM

Thanks, all, for your comments. David Olive, of course you're quite right that perpetuating myths or inaccuracies is a bad idea. In this instance, I confess I was influenced by an interview I did not conduct personally. The TV interview in question quotes the direct words of both Mark Borkowski, Executive Director of the SBI and the Director of Homeland Security Issues for the Government Accountability Office, who has monitored the project for Congress. Both wonder why border patrol guards were not involved in the development process of the fence, with Borkowski describing this decision -- and the lack of design iteration -- as a "huge mistake". He adds that the project was oversold and says that while he's "getting happier" with Boeing's performance, he's "not yet happy". You can see the video segment, and its various critical quotes from key players, at (search for the 01/10/10 air date of Sixty Minutes). I believe that my extrapolating from these direct quotes to consider a relevant, related context is fair.

T.J. Bonner

January 11, 2010 11:27 PM

In response to David Olive's comments, I am constrained to point out that there's a world of difference between asking managers who have been out of the field for more than a decade what they want from a system and soliciting input from the employees who perform the job every day. (Boeing is blameless for this blunder; the responsibility rests solely with Border Patrol management.) Based on a substantial amount of feedback from those frontline employees, I'm convinced that the criticism of the design of the system is fully warranted. Moreover, the questions about the effectiveness of the overall program are legitimate. Americans have a right to expect accountability regarding the expenditure of their hard-earned tax dollars. This system has failed to deliver on its promises, and needs to be thoroughly re-examined before any more money is invested in it.

T.J. Bonner
National Border Patrol Council


January 12, 2010 10:27 AM

Let me suggest that this is the wrong argument to be having. The assumption is that talking to users (voice of the customer) is the magic to innovative solutions. For incremental solution improvements, we can agree on this. Users are typically too close to the problem and conventional solutions that they cannot articulate latent needs or unconventional solutions. Also, we can agree that the border fence is intended to be a non-incremental solution (i.e., disruptive or breakthrough). For disruptive innovation, our belief is that you must build a case based on the community of practice, which includes users, suppliers, competitors, academic research, industry consultants, etc. Collectively, the community possesses knowledge about both needs and solutions that enables breakthrough innovative thinking. Did Boeing build a community of practice and elicit its collective knowledge? This is the proper question.

Helen Walters

January 12, 2010 2:53 PM

Fascinating. TJ Bonner, thank you for your insight. And Brian@inovo, you strike a theme that, most recently, Roberto Verganti also chimed with his book, Design-Driven Innovation. This is a common quandary. Involving and engaging consumers is essential to providing a solution that is useful and appropriate. Yet as you say, true disruption involves giving people something they have no idea they need or want. How to balance this is a fiendish problem. What other tips or tricks do people have for building a solid foundation for success while leaving the field open for imaginative solutions that surprise, delight (and work)?


January 12, 2010 4:42 PM

I would like to expand on the comments made by David Olive. It is certainly true that the Border Patrol and its SETA support contractors provided many inputs to the Boeing team after Contract Award, during the P28 Demonstration phase. They conducted workshops in San Diego and technical reviews in Washington and Tucson. They had an extensive Concept of Operations and system specification. However, it must be noted that no specification can fully portray how intractable that environment really is. Though the proposed system design could have been modified to better suit the special problems of the Border Patrol, the initial program was very tightly constrained on both BUDGET and SCHEDULE. These constraints were not flexible and were unrealistically optimistic. I think it is also fair to say that the diverse technologies used for the Demonstration Project were mature in other well-defined applications, but were not adequate to the rugged environmental conditions and integration challenges. Many changes had to be made during integration testing after the towers were deployed. Unfortunately, the problems had to be identified by those front-line agents who used the new system during field testing - it wasn't pretty. But not hopeless.


January 12, 2010 10:03 PM

Just more typical government incompetence. When you hire lazy slugs, this is exactly what you get. And the contractors: they're only out to scam as much as money as they can. No accountability, no adult supervision; just braindead drones.
If they could get, and hold, a real job - they would.....well maybe.

Leah Pollak

January 19, 2010 12:31 PM

I have to agree with Brian@inovo and Helen’s later comment to the complexities of balancing the need for multiple stakeholder consultation in addition to a disruptive innovation approach. Possibly a better approach for the design team could have been a rapid deep consultation/diagnostic phase, followed by a proposal on which multiple stakeholders could have built on. Therefore, using both a collaborative approach to a disruptive innovation—possibly saving time and resources.


January 27, 2010 11:42 AM

remove the border. educate the work force. expand the north american economy. that would be disruptive innovation.

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