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Friday, January 27, 2023

GAO: Transformation Needed at DHS OIG to Address Myriad Weaknesses

The Office of Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS OIG) has faced a number of long-standing management and operational challenges that have affected its ability to carry out its oversight mission effectively.

Consequently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has carried out a review of DHS OIG’s management and operations and found that it is not well positioned to fulfill its oversight mission.

GAO found that since fiscal year 2015, DHS OIG has not adhered to a number of professional standards for federal OIGs and key practices for effective management. According to GAO, “frequent leadership turnover and associated shifts in leadership priorities have contributed to DHS OIG’s long-standing management and operational weaknesses and impeded efforts to address them”.

DHS OIG senior leaders acknowledge that various challenges have contributed to these weaknesses, and have taken steps to begin to address some of them, as follows:

  • Organizational performance management: DHS OIG has operated for four of the past six years without a strategic plan. This limits its ability to implement other organizational performance management activities, such as annual planning and performance assessment. In the absence of a strategic plan, GAO found that DHS OIG staff may not understand its oversight priorities and goals, which can negatively affect operations and staff performance. In 2020, DHS OIG contracted with a nonprofit academy of government experts to develop a strategic plan for fiscal years 2021–2025, with expected completion in June 2021.
  • Quality assurance: DHS OIG has not developed or implemented organization-wide roles and responsibilities for quality assurance. DHS OIG retracted some reports in recent years because they did not adhere to professional standards. Because there is no overarching system of internal quality assurance for audit, inspection, evaluation, and other work, DHS OIG cannot know if its internal processes ensure that its work adheres to its policies and meets established standards of performance.
  • Report timeliness: Project time frames have increased in recent years, and DHS OIG has not taken steps to understand the causes of such increases or determine how to address them. For example, in the Office of Audits, eight of 102 projects completed in fiscal year 2017 took more than 18 months, compared to more than half (35 of 67) of projects completed in fiscal year 2020. Without timely DHS OIG reports, GAO says DHS’s ability to respond to such oversight efforts and Congress’s ability to conduct effective oversight of DHS operations are limited.
  • Coordination with DHS: DHS OIG does not have a consistent process for coordinating with DHS components to receive and respond to technical and management comments on DHS OIG audit, inspection, and evaluation work. Further, DHS officials do not have confidence in DHS OIG’s processes to correct factual errors before finalizing reports and redact sensitive but unclassified information before publicly issuing reports. As a result, the process by which DHS OIG resolves DHS’s comments is at risk of miscommunication and misunderstandings.

GAO’s June 3 report notes that DHS OIG did not have a strategic plan in fiscal years 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2020. In addition, for the years when DHS OIG did not have a strategic plan, the organization also did not establish organization-wide performance goals and metrics that, consistent with leading practices, are derived from that strategic plan. The strategic plan DHS OIG adopted for fiscal years 2018–2019 was found to be incomplete. In the spring of 2019, DHS OIG took steps to prepare a successor strategic plan, but ultimately changed course following a leadership change.

Regarding the plan now due in June 2021, one senior official told GAO that, from July 2019 through the first half of 2020, the Inspector General prioritized addressing personnel issues among DHS OIG’s senior leadership team and, as a result, it took until summer 2020 to get the contract in place for strategic planning support.

GAO found that as an organization, DHS OIG does not formally analyze the risks it faces from internal or external sources, nor does it develop risk responses and assess the effectiveness of those responses, as internal control standards describe.

Additionally, as of November 2020, GAO found DHS OIG had critical policy gaps that had existed for years. According to the report, “efforts to standardize policy-making and review have stalled in the aftermath of frequent leadership turnover and reassignment of the policy function across offices. As a result, staff throughout DHS OIG are operating without current and critical organizational policies, which has led to management actions that some staff consider arbitrary. These policy gaps also open management to potential complaints of favoritism or bias that may hurt morale and negatively affect operations.” Notable gaps or missing policies that may present organizational risks identified in GAO’s report include DHS’s anti-harrassment and performance management policies.

Regarding sensitive information, DHS officials told GAO that they have faced challenges when asking DHS OIG to remove or redact information DHS identifies as sensitive but unclassified from reports DHS OIG plans to issue publicly. In at least two reports DHS OIG issued publicly—in fiscal years 2019 and 2021—DHS officials told GAO they requested sensitive but unclassified information redactions that DHS OIG did not make. Office of Audits guidance says that a report will not be distributed publicly until DHS management has an opportunity to comment on sensitive information that DHS management believes should be withheld from public release.

The myriad weaknesses GAO identified in its report are of particular concern given that OIGs need to maintain high standards of professionalism and integrity in light of their mission, according to quality standards for federal OIGs. Without addressing these and other long-standing management and operational weaknesses, DHS OIG is not well positioned to fulfill its oversight mission.

GAO is making 21 recommendations to DHS OIG to address management and operational weaknesses related to performance management, quality assurance, reporting timeliness, and coordination with DHS, among others. DHS has concurred with all the recommendations and GAO’s report includes the DHS response which sets out planned action to meet the recommendations.

GAO concluded that “considering the extent of the identified weaknesses, this work amounts to a transformation of the organization’s management and operations”. It acknowledged that “such transformation can be a difficult, complex endeavor, and following key practices for organizational transformation can improve the likelihood of success”. GAO noted that while top leadership commitment—and ensuring that top leadership drives a transformation—is among the key practices that can improve the likelihood of success for a transformation, a transformation directed only from the top is unlikely to result in success. 

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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