Insight by NEC Corporation

TSA’s digital services team accelerates delivery of new capabilities

Digital Transformation at TSA

What I wanted to be able to do is sort of triage, big things that come up, and they come up all the time in the world of federal CIOs. Somebody needs something, COVID is a great example. But the ability to put people on it, just grab that [digital services] team, maybe have a design studio effort, to get whiteboards up and start at the 50,000 foot level and move ourselves down. What's the problem you have? Help walk them and facilitate them through that. And what would you like to be able to do? Then figure out what technologies that that are out there can support it. We try and keep these people on the cutting edge of technology, knowing what's out there.

The Pandemic Impact on Digital Transformation Strategy

You talked a little about touchless technologies. We're looking at a few of those. One of those is touchless when you come up to the TDC, and that's the area where they document check what you have before you go through the screening and provide your boarding pass or your mobile phone, and your driver's license or your passport. We're looking at digital ways to do that, touchless ways, so you don't have to do that. We got the technologies. They're not completely ready to go. But they're getting close. We're working on that. The way you enroll in some of our programs, whether it's whether it's TSA Precheck, and things like that, we're looking at touchless ways to do that. And ways to use the upcoming mobile driver's license. And we're working with that.

CXO Coordination

We definitely are looking, whether it's COVID or not, to improve our ability to make sure we catch fake documents. Those things, we've gotten very, very good at that and we think there's another step of improvement to be made with touchless technologies, use of biometrics, and I talked a little about mobile driver's license, those things are in the future. They work. We're definitely exploring those things. They're not all ready to plug them in at a checkpoint. We're still doing a lot of testing and evaluation on those things, but they are we believe there in the future, that those things. You'll be able to come up and touchlessly get into your screening lane at the airport without having to touch anything or hand anybody anything like that.

The Evolution of Cybersecurity

I was in a meeting with our administrator not too long ago, and sort of out of the blue, he said to me, ‘Russ, explain to me what your risk philosophy is?’ He asked me that out of the blue, and it was an interesting question. I think all CIOs ought to have that it may be two or three different levels. What is your risk? Well, my risk tolerance is not zero, right? I can't operate at zero. I need to have an understanding the operations, but at the same time, it doesn't mean anything goes. So you better know if something goes wrong, what's it going to do? Those are the challenges, make it realistic, and then what's the mitigations for that? I think is my most fulfilling and most worrisome job that I have as the CIO at TSA because our mission is so critical to make sure that we do that.

The Transportation Security Administration set up a digital services team about a year ago to accelerate the development of new capabilities.

While Russ Roberts, the TSA chief information officer, always knew the team had great value, it wasn’t until the pandemic that it proved just how indispensable the digital services team had become.

The digital services team led an effort to turn a manual process into a digital one for Transportation Security Officers to schedule shifts and vacations.

“Obviously, when COVID-19 hit, it was a time that you don’t want all those people coming in the same room. Meanwhile, we’re challenged within the federal government where it’s difficult to bring your own device. We looked at the data and asked ‘how can we get at that? How can we get that process out to them on their own laptops, on their own mobile devices and be able to get in on their schedule and take a look at only the things that are left available to them, select it and never have to go into the office?’ The digital services team did that,” Roberts said on Ask the CIO sponsored by NEC Corporation. “We started with a schedule bed. In less than 30 days from that very first meeting, we’d finished developing all the requirements, all the code. We did this in Salesforce, all the testing. We went out and tested it three different airports. We got the thumbs up. It was deployed to all the airports in less than 30 days. It was actually done in, I think, about 26 days, which is which was monumental. Not every airport used it, some of the very small ones didn’t need it, they did it via phone, but all the big airports and it was a huge success. We follow that up with doing the same thing for leave bid.”

He said the digital services team made sure it was secure, there was no sensitive data was at risk and everything was behind the firewall and not on the devices.

That success for the digital services is the latest example of the transformation that TSA has been undergoing for the last few years.

Roberts said TSA created the digital services team in 2019 as a way to bring engineers, software developers, security experts and customer experience advisors together to solve specific problems and “cut through the red tape” to get capabilities to the field faster.

“It used to be that six months would be rapid development and really you’re talking about a year and two years and we got down to the end of that it never worked the way you wanted it to work,” he said. “We started with DevSecOps and two months for agile delivery, and now we were driving that to three weeks. We’ve pretty much gotten that across the board. We had to work with our acquisition and our contracts professionals because they had to learn just like we did that the deliverables are different under an agile contract than what they are otherwise.”

Roberts said the digital services team and move to Dev/Sec/Ops are key to pushing more toward his goal of making TSA a software-as-a-service (SaaS)-first organization.

The approach of the digital services team and the move to DevSecOps becomes more important as TSA brings in new touchless and identity vetting capabilities.

Roberts said his office and the Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis will work together to ensure airports are ready to use these new technologies.

“We’ve got testing facilities to make sure that new technology is ready to go. Like any smart organization that’s this big, we’ll put it in one or two places and see how it goes. We’ll test it at our facility, and then we’ll test it at a live operation, always ready to back it out in event it doesn’t work. Every new patch is a new opportunity for eight things to go offline, and when you have 90 mission systems, and goodness knows how many other systems that we rely on out there, every time we patch something, we have to be ready to pull that back and do that,” he said. “You talked a little about touchless technologies. We’re looking at a few of those. One of those is touchless when you come up to the TDC, and that’s the area where they document check what you have before you go through the screening and provide your boarding pass or your mobile phone, and your driver’s license or your passport. We’re looking at digital ways to do that, touchless ways, so you don’t have to do that. We got the technologies. They’re not completely ready to go. But they’re getting close. We’re working on that. The way you enroll in some of our programs, whether it’s whether it’s TSA Precheck, and things like that, we’re looking at touchless ways to do that. And ways to use the upcoming mobile driver’s license. And we’re working with that.”

Part of the reason for the interest in touchless technologies goes beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Roberts said TSA is focused on making its services more citizen and user friendly while also more secure.

“We definitely are looking, whether it’s COVID or not, to improve our ability to make sure we catch fake documents. Those things, we’ve gotten very, very good at that and we think there’s another step of improvement to be made with touchless technologies, use of biometrics, and I talked a little about mobile driver’s license, those things are in the future. They work. We’re definitely exploring those things,” he said. “They’re not all ready to plug them in at a checkpoint. We’re still doing a lot of testing and evaluation on those things, but they are we believe there in the future, that those things. You’ll be able to come up and touchlessly get into your screening lane at the airport without having to touch anything or hand anybody anything like that.”

Roberts said TSA also wants to add new touchless or mobile capabilities to its cargo safety mission area.

“There’s some systems that we have out there that we’re trying to re-platform so they’re much more efficient and effective, and they’re more real time. They kind of existed from the beginning of TSA when we did things right away. We’ve been improving those, but I think it’s now time to make a huge jump in technology in some of those areas,” he said. “Our transportation redress program, we’re trying to modernize that a little bit. I think we get pretty good marks on that. But we found that that’s an area because enough people are involved in that we want to streamline that and make it the best customer experience that we can, while still making sure the security is in place for the folks. Those are some of the things that we’re working on. I think that touches stuff at the checkpoints are things that you’re you all are going to see in the near future.”

In addition to the digital services and transformation efforts, Roberts said developing the TSA IT workforce and developing more trust with the mission areas to create better new capabilities more quickly.

“I want to expand our mobile capabilities because we do have that diverse workforce. We want to have things a lot more self-help where you can go in on your phone and do your do your human capital form, or put your leave in and make it easy. You don’t have to come into the office to do those things,” he said. “We have a lot of things that we can make more efficient in the agency. We’re working hard to do that. We’re finishing up the deployment of Office 365, with OneDrive SharePoint and Teams are the next things so we’re in line with what the department has. Power BI and all that stuff to leverage all the data that we have so we can do that much more efficiently and effectively. My biggest challenge there is budget and resources. We’re deploying a new human capital hybrid cloud solution, and that will enable us to bring in more mobile and self-help capabilities to get things done and be more efficient. Those things are those things are on the horizon.”

Featured speakers

  • Russell Roberts

    Chief Information Officer and Assistant Administrator, Transportation Security Administration

  • Jason Miller

    Executive Editor, Federal News Network

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