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In August, the White House laid a monumental task on the the Homeland Security Department. Through Operation Allies Welcome, President Joe Biden charged DHS to lead and coordinate ongoing efforts across the federal government to resettle Afghans in the United States.

DHS took over the program from the State Department, which led the effort to transition Afghan nationals to the U.S. The interagency initiative found success vetting and settling more than 80,000 evacuees, in part through the use of a technology approach that could be updated and developed on the fly.

“This work that was really largely DHS, State and the Defense Department, along with many other agencies that played a role required us to stand up a new processes in almost real time,” said Eric Hysen, DHS chief information officer, on Ask the CIO. “There were areas where we couldn’t go through a normal IT development cycle to build software to support them. We were able to leverage some platform as a service tools to stand something up very quickly. That really enabled and accelerated that work. I was thrilled to see that.”

DHS took over the platform from State and put the development into what Hysen called “hyperdrive.” He said the “as a service” model that State initially used meant DHS stepped right in and didn’t miss a beat.

The cloud approach “also required us to rethink our governance of some of these platforms and our as a service offerings. They enable work that gets much, much closer to this ideal of citizen development or whatever term you want to call it,” Hysen said. “But it’s also important for us to be mindful of how we are governing and overseeing that work, how we are ensuring that we are still rigorously testing and understanding what functionality we are putting out there.”

Additionally, he said it led the team working on the program to think about what DHS’ long-term dependency on various platforms and offerings might be over time and how it can think avoid lock-in scenarios. ” It’s an area that I think will only become more and more important,” Hysen added.

Three Homeland Security priorities drive technology change

In the 15 months since he became Homeland Security CIO, Hysen, who previously was executive director of digital service, has been focusing on three priorities: cybersecurity, customer experience and using data to drive decisions.

Each of these priorities is about the continued maturation of technology and services to support DHS mission areas, which Hysen said  has been one of the biggest, but also most pleasing, surprises that he experienced in coming back to the agency.

Most recently, DHS completed the first bug bounty program, during which vetted cyber researchers helped find vulnerabilities in key agency systems. Hysen said 450, researchers participated, finding 122 vulnerabilities, including 27 deemed critical, across five departmentwide systems. DHS paid over $125,000 in bounties to those researchers.

“This is something that has made a demonstrable improvement in security across the network and across the department,” he said. “The initial phase where we were collecting information from researchers was, I think, just under two months. So really the pace that we found these was just much more than we were expecting. The value we got out of this was so significant. Then our teams were hard at work as soon as we were getting things confirmed and working to remediate them as quickly as we could.”

The success of the bug bounty program led DHS to issue a new draft solicitation at the end of April to expand the effort.

“We’re still working out the exact schedule, but it’s something that we want to be a regular occurrence, given what we saw,” he said. “We’re looking at different parts of the department, different critical systems and also , in some cases, even introducing in person elements to this as we think about interacting with the operational technology environments as well.”

Improving internal and external customer experience

Under the customer experience priority, DHS is taking a multi-pronged approach.

Hysen partnered with Stacy Marcott, who is performing the duties of the chief financial officer, on proposals to win funding from the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF). The two offices brought together different component business cases to create one agencywide proposal for the Southwest border and won $50 million.

“Our Southwest border technology integration program is not just Customs and Border Protection, actually, it also includes work at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. We did that deliberately. Each of them had their own projects that they wanted to seek TMF funding for, and we said we’re not going to do that. We’re going to put them all together. It caused a lot of learning across our teams,” he said. “Ultimately, it allowed us and forced us to really think about how we were working together across our organizations and agencies to deliver on the same mission.”

Although DHS hasn’t received any of the $50 million award yet, Hysen said DHS expects to shortly and it will help accelerate the connection among disparate systems, improve cross-agency collaboration and support data-driven decision-making.

New DHS-wide steering committee

Even without the additional funding, Hysen said CBP, ICE and USCIS are making progress. For instance, almost three-quarters of all Title 8 immigration encounters are signed digitally by Border Patrol agents and almost three-quarters of those as well are transferred digitally and reviewed digitally by ICE, which means that people are spending less time in custody and moving through the system more efficiently, he said.

“Our border patrol agents and our other law enforcement officers are spending less time working through systems and signing paperwork and more time out in the field doing their jobs,” Hysen said. “That’s been incredibly exciting and rewarding work so far, and we have a ways to go. That will only intensify over the coming months.”

DHS also is awaiting word from the TMF Board about several other proposals, including one focused on modernizing the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) to further develop a mobile application that lets state and local law enforcement partners access intelligence from DHS on their iPhones and soon on their Android devices. A second proposal would to help the Transportation Security Administration modernize the traveler experience through smarter use of technology.

On the external customer experience side, Hysen said, DHS has several ongoing initiatives, but isn’t trying to take a one-size-fits-all approach given the breadth and depth of its customer base.

“We’ve launched a Customer Experience Steering Committee across the department that Deputy Secretary John Tien kicked off for us. That brings senior operational and IT leaders from each of our operating components together,” he said. “I’ve established a team under my office that’s grown out of the great work that the U.S. Digital Service has been doing at DHS, since I was last here, to drive this forward and provide resources to all of our all of our organizations.”

As an example, he pointed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It is rebuilding its individual disaster assistance experience so that it is faster for people to get support from the government to rebuild following disasters.  The goal is to make it easier for FEMA to provide citizens information that they need, Hysen said, adding “that it’s more equitable and that we are ensuring that what we’re asking for is equally accessible to all of our all of our customers.”

DHS looks to reduce burden on citizens in additional ways

In another effort, TSA and DHS in April announced a partnership with Apple to roll out mobile driver’s licenses on the iPhone’s Apple wallet feature. Right now, DHS and Apple are testing this concept in Arizona.

“We’re excited to see that expand more broadly,” Hysen said. “Then, we also are looking at ways that we can use biometrics so that you’re not handing over a document, you’re not touching your phones or anything. Your face can be your identity in a responsible private, respectful way from curb to gate at the airport which is something that Delta and TSA are working to pilot in a few airports right now.”

Finally, DHS also is looking internally to reduce the burden on its citizens by addressing challenges under the Paperwork Reduction Act. The department found it puts 190 million hours of administrative burden on the public every year, Hysen said.

“I just signed a challenge to our departments to say that by the middle of next year, we want to cut that number by 20 million hours,” he said. “All of our agencies across DHS are now working to look at how we can use technology, how we can use human-centered design and how we can really use just smart policy process practices to significantly reduce the burden that we place on the public in the form of paperwork. … It’ll be the first time that number goes down instead of up, which is really, really the intent of that effort.”

Learning objectives:

  • IT progress at DHS
  • Cybersecurity initiatives
  • TMF support at DHS
  • Examining customer experience and workforce
  • Industry analysis

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Eric Hysen

Chief Information Officer, Department of Homeland Security

Lamont Copeland

Managing Director, Federal Solutions Architecture, Verizon

Jason Miller

Executive Editor, Federal News Network

By providing your contact information to us, you agree: (i) to receive promotional and/or news alerts via email from Federal News Network and our third party partners, (ii) that we may share your information with our third party partners who provide products and services that may be of interest to you and (iii) that you are not located within the European Economic Area.