Acquisition and management challenges have afflicted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) since its creation nearly thirteen years ago, according to numerousreports by DHS’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
In 2003, GAO designated implementing and transforming DHS as high risk because the failure to address risks associated with transforming 22 agencies into one department could have serious consequences for US national and economic security. In the past thirteen years, GAO has made 2,400 recommendations to DHS to strengthen management efforts.
According to multiple testimonies at a recent hearing held by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Department has taken steps towards getting off the high risk list by improving the monitoring of its key management initiatives.
GAO, which has reported on DHS’s acquisition management for over 10 years, explained that although the department has struggled to effectively manage key programs, including ensuring that all major acquisitions had approved baselines and that they were affordable, there has been significant progress.
In particular, GAO found that the Secretary of Homeland Security has provided exemplary leadership support in addressing management challenges, particularly through the “Unity of Effort” initiative.
“To ensure that recent efforts are sustained, the department must continue to implement its sound acquisition policy consistently and effectively across all components,” GAO said.
During the hearing, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), Chairman of the Committee, questioned GAO and DHS OIG officials on how much progress has been made in implementing reforms that would take DHS off the high risk list.
“Based on our high risk criteria, we would say they are three-fifths of the way there,” said Rebecca Gambler, Director of Homeland Security and Justice at GAO.
Michele Mackin, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management at GAO, added, “On the acquisition front, and having been involved for over 10 years, it is only recently that we have started to see real progress. We are seeing more accountability and we hope that the Department can keep this up at all levels.”
DHS Inspector General John Roth concurred with the conclusions of GAO, stating, “Based on my limited experience, and older audits that I have read containing some nightmare scenarios, we are out of those kinds of woods.”
But DHS isn’t quite there yet.
Specifically, DHS OIG said United States Custom and Immigration Services faces continuing challenges in its efforts to automate immigration benefits, the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs to improve IT management and planning, and the Department pays too much for its motor vehicle fleet, among others. Additionally, Components do not always follow departmental acquisition guidance, leading to cost overruns, missed schedules, and mediocre acquisition performance.
“Although DHS has made much progress, it has not yet achieved the cohesion and sense of community to act as one entity working toward a common goal,” Roth stated.
Currently, the Committee has plans to consider legislation to further bolster DHS management and acquisition reform efforts. Senator Tom Carper, Ranking Member of the Committee, said the bills would seek to make permanent many of the management reforms that the Department has already instituted and improve the acquisition process at the Department by designating the Under Secretary for Management as the single accountable leader for all DHS acquisition programs. Furthermore, the billswould vest the Under Secretary with the statutory authority to halt, modify, or cancel acquisition programs that are struggling or are not viable.
DHS OIG believes the two bills under consideration by the Committee will enable DHS to sustain the improvements the department has already made, and assist in continuing to improve the accountability and transparency of its acquisition program management.
Without them, Roth worries the hard work DHS has accomplished could be undone. Roth said, “I believe that in the last few years DHS has instituted significant reforms to the acquisition process and has exerted significant leadership to gain control over an unruly and wasteful process. However, I worry that these significant reforms, if not continuously enforced over time, could be undone.”