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Thursday, June 8, 2023

GAO: CBP Could Improve Acquisition Management to Avoid Over-Schedule and Over-Budget Programs

A contracting officer for a marine vessel program GAO reviewed told the watchdog about an issue with contractor performance that, according to the official, could have been avoided if more extensive research had been done prior to awarding the contract.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) invests billions of dollars each year on systems like software and boats to support its missions. But CBP’s purchases have sometimes cost more and taken longer to arrive than expected.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has examined 10 CBP acquisition programs and found that they didn’t consistently collect or share lessons learned from past projects. The 10 programs that GAO examined were:

  • Advanced Trade Analytics Platform
  • Automated Commercial Environment
  • Biometric Entry-Exit
  • Cross Border Tunnel Threat
  • Integrated Fixed Towers 
  • Marine VesselsCoastal Interceptor Vessel 
  • Medium Lift Helicopter 
  • Multi-Role Enforcement Aircraft
  • Non-Intrusive Inspection Systems
  • Unified Immigration Portal 

A number of key stakeholders collaborate to manage CBP’s acquisition programs. Yet GAO notes in its April 25 report that recent changes to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) policy have reduced formal involvement of one stakeholder—the contracting officer. Prior to the policy change, CBP contracting officers had a defined role in developing acquisition strategies through program-level acquisition plans, which were intended to discuss the overall strategy for relevant contracts supporting the program. Now, CBP contracting officers that GAO spoke with coordinate with program managers on a contract-by-contract basis. GAO also noted that CBP has not yet updated its guidance to define the role contracting officers should have in developing program-level acquisition strategies. 

Across the 10 programs GAO reviewed, it found that program managers identified various methods they use to facilitate collaboration with user representatives. Some program managers stated they held regularly occurring meetings with user representatives to gather user feedback, while some said they met on a more ad hoc basis. Two program managers GAO spoke with said that, although the user representatives are at the executive level, the program managers were able to communicate with them and could meet when needed. For example, even though the user representative in the U.S. Border Patrol is the Deputy Chief of Border Patrol, the program manager for a tunnel program said it was not uncommon for them to meet multiple times a week to discuss end-user needs and how to improve their approach to meeting those needs. Another program manager told GAO it is useful when the user representative is an executive because it can expedite the resolution of issues. 

To help with decision making, Border Patrol established a requirements working group to help ensure its investments align with the vision, strategic goals, and mission priorities of the agency. A Border Patrol program manager told GAO that he relies on the group—which consists of senior Border Patrol officials—to address issues facing their acquisition program before presenting those options to the user representative for final decision. For example, the user representative for a surveillance tower program described using the working group to determine how best to deploy the towers across Southwest border regions prior to finalizing that decision. Specifically, the working group was presented three options for the number and locations to deploy the towers, and the members voted and approved one of the options. 

Similarly, Air and Marine Operations has Operations Advisory Groups for each of its acquisition programs to identify solutions and recommendations on resourcing and operational decision-making for the user representative. For example, the Operations Advisory Group for an interdiction aircraft has helped facilitate communication between program officials and end users on the availability of spare parts needed for the aircraft to perform certain missions. 

The government watchdog found that CBP does not consistently demonstrate leading practices for lessons learned when developing acquisition programs. Lessons learned can be a valuable tool for evaluating the success or failure of a program and for applying those lessons to future efforts. CBP requires programs to conduct activities—such as post-implementation reviews—that can capture lessons learned. But GAO said the programs it reviewed did not consistently conduct these activities or collect, analyze, and validate these lessons learned. Of the 10 acquisition programs that GAO reviewed, five programs completed post-implementation reviews, one is currently conducting a post-implementation review, two plan to conduct post-implementation reviews after they reach initial deployment, and two did not conduct post-implementation reviews after achieving initial deployment.

GAO also found that, while CBP has taken some steps to share lessons learned, it does not have a formal process or a repository in place to consistently archive and share them. A contracting officer for a marine vessel program GAO reviewed told the watchdog about an issue with contractor performance that, according to the official, could have been avoided if more extensive research had been done prior to awarding the contract.

GAO is making four recommendations to CBP, including to update guidance; to formalize contracting officer involvement in program acquisition strategies; to collect, analyze, and validate lessons learned; and to develop a lessons learned repository. DHS agreed with the majority of the recommendations. Activity is already underway to address the recommendations. In 2022 for example, CBP began collecting lessons learned in a spreadsheet from program reviews or knowledge that the Office of Acquisition has gained from working with programs. This collection is still in the early phases.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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