The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) invests billions of dollars annually to acquire systems that help secure the border, increase marine safety, screen travelers, enhance cybersecurity, improve disaster response, and execute a wide variety of other operations.
Following an assessment of cost and schedule goals for the department’s major acquisition programs, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that most programs were meeting their goals.
As of September 2021, 23 of the 29 programs GAO selected for this review had developed a DHS-approved acquisition program baseline—establishing how the system being acquired will perform, when it will be delivered, and what it will cost—and 20 of those 23 programs were meeting their goals.
However, five programs exceeded their cost or schedule goals, or both, at some point during fiscal year 2021. Reasons for the breaches included external factors, such as COVID-19, and an underestimation of program complexity. While two of these five programs restructured their baseline goals to get back on track, the remaining three were still in breach status as of September 2021.
GAO stated that these three programs were Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (with a baseline life-cycle cost of $3.9 billion), Medium Range Surveillance Aircraft ($15.2 billion), and National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility ($1.3 billion). All three were in breach of schedule with the advanced recognition technology program also in breach of cost.
GAO also found that nine programs that were meeting their currently established goals rebaselined or were in the process of doing so in fiscal year 2021 due to scope changes, such as a change in quantities, an extended life cycle, or additional funding from Congress.
As of September 2021, GAO found that four programs used a DHS policy allowing programs to adjust schedule milestones up to six months due to the effects of COVID-19. These effects included workforce absences due to stay-at-home orders and supply chain delays for needed parts.
The pandemic took its toll on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Biometric Entry-Exit program, which relies on travel-related user fees to fund a significant percentage of its operations. The program collected less of these fees than expected due to COVID-19. As travel volumes decreased, demand for certain types of visas was cut by nearly 50 percent in fiscal year 2020. Prior to COVID-19, officials stated the program collected on average $60 million in fees that funded program activities. In fiscal year 2020, visa fee applications generated $35.9 million in funds, and this amount fell to $28.4 million in fiscal year 2021. As a result of the reduced user fees, the program has been forced to delay development and expansion of the program’s biometric matching capabilities, particularly for the segment of the program focused on land borders. The program is focused on maintaining current biometric matching capabilities but expects that any future expansion will lag, as user fees generated from increased travel do not become immediately available for obligation and expenditure.
The Transportation Security Administration’s Checkpoint Property Screening System program temporarily halted the deployment of new units at airports, according to program officials. Officials told GAO that the program was unable to complete any installations from March 2020 through June 2020 due to travel restrictions. Additionally, officials identified delays associated with construction and permitting issues at airports, which were caused at least in part by COVID-19. As a result, the program did not meet its goal of deploying the initial 300 scanning units by January 2021. However, officials stated that they were able to make up some of that lost time by speeding up later installations, and the program was able to complete the deployment of these units by April 2021.
In addition to the negative COVID-19 effects, one program reported a positive outcome of the federal response to the pandemic. According to program officials, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) received an additional $2.5 million in fiscal year 2021 funding, which the Grants Management Modernization program used to implement the new requirements attached to the CARES Act. This funding helped the program test its design and incorporate new requirements sooner than anticipated. Officials stated the program reviewed the new requirements, which were an extension of an existing program, and narrowed the eligibility criteria, designed the program, and opened funding opportunities through the new system within 35 days. FEMA officials described the speed of this deployment as unprecedented in the agency’s history.