TSA Federal Security Director Daniel Ronan demonstrates the bag rescreening process for County Commissioner Barbara Jordan and Representative Wilson. Miami International Airport photo

DHS Leaders May Be Approving Acquisition Schedules That Don’t Match Execution Plans

This fiscal year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to spend over $10 billion to acquire major systems, including equipment to help enhance cybersecurity and improve disaster response. In addition to the fiscal year 2020 spend, the department ultimately plans to invest more than $200 billion over the life cycle of these programs. Most of DHS’s major acquisition programs cost at least $300 million and take multiple years to acquire.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed 27 of the department’s major acquisition programs and found 25 met current goals for schedule and cost. The remaining two programs breached their schedule or cost goals. This represents an improvement since GAO’s last review, when seven programs were found to be in breach.

The two programs that breached goals this time were attributed to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

CBP’s Integrated Fixed Towers program, which declared a schedule breach of the program’s baseline in February 2019 as a result of delays in negotiations with the Tohono O’odham Nation—a sovereign Native American Nation—regarding access to tribal lands to construct towers and deploy systems. CBP subsequently reached an agreement with the Nation in March 2019. As of September 2019, the program was in the process of revision and adjustment. Program officials anticipate the program’s full operational capability date will slip from September 2020 to March 2021.

Meanwhile, TSA’s Electronic Baggage Screening Program exceeded its cost threshold. TSA officials attribute the program’s cost breach to an increase in maintenance costs related to sustaining screening technologies longer than initially planned.

Eleven of the 25 programs that GAO found to be on track to meet current schedule and cost goals in this most recent review were subject to revised schedule and cost goals between January 2018 and August 2019. DHS leadership approved revised baselines for these programs for two primary reasons: to remove the program from breach status or to account for program changes, or both

GAO found that some of the programs that were on track as of August 2019 are at risk of not meeting cost or schedule goals or both in the future. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol Cutter program faces potential cost increases and schedule slips in the future as a result of damages to the shipbuilder’s facility from Hurricane Michael in October 2018.

Five of the 25 programs that met schedule and cost goals had only recently established initial acquisition program baselines (APB), which contain information on programs’ schedules and cost estimates. Three of these five—CBP’s Biometric Entry-Exit program and Border Wall System Program, and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Security Cutter—are new Level 1 major acquisition programs and as of August 2019 their combined life cycle costs were approximately $15 billion. In addition, DHS recently approved baselines for two TSA programs—Advanced Technology and Credential Authentication Technology. These programs were previously projects under the Passenger Screening Program, but according to Transportation Security Administration officials, transitioned into standalone programs to better align program office staffing to capabilities and focus on mitigating capability gaps, among other things.

In terms of traceability, of the 27 programs GAO assessed, 21 had established baselines after DHS updated its acquisition policy in March 2016. GAO noted in its December 19 report that the 21 programs’ baseline cost and performance goals generally traced to source documents, such as life-cycle cost estimates and planned performance outcomes. However, schedule goals did not generally match up to the programs’ integrated master schedules (IMS), as required by DHS acquisition management instruction and as a best practice identified in GAO’s Schedule Assessment Guide.

GAO said the lack of traceability between IMSs and schedule goals in the approved APBs indicates that DHS does not have appropriate oversight processes in place to ensure that schedules are accurately reflected in program baselines, in accordance with DHS policy and GAO’s best practices. DHS leadership may therefore be approving program schedule goals that do not align with program execution plans.

GAO began reviewing DHS’s portfolio of major acquisitions in 2015. Since then, DHS has strengthened implementation of its policies to improve acquisition oversight and these efforts have paid off as the performance of the department’s major acquisition portfolio has improved compared to GAO’s previous review. However, opportunities remain for DHS to provide better oversight of major acquisition programs’ schedule goals.

To achieve this, GAO recommends DHS develops an oversight process to confirm that programs’ schedule goals are developed and updated in accordance with GAO’s Schedule Assessment Guide, to include ensuring traceability between APB schedule goals and IMSs.

DHS agreed and stated that the Management Directorate’s Office of Program Accountability and Risk Management (PARM) has developed an IMS checklist based on GAO’s Schedule Assessment Guide. PARM is currently using this checklist to evaluate IMSs. In addition, PARM is drafting accompanying guidance on schedules which is attended to assist staff building the IMS and APBs. DHS estimates this will be complete by September 30, 2020.

GAO also recommends that The Secretary of Homeland Security should ensure that the Undersecretary for Management revises the schedule development guidance in the Systems Engineering Life Cycle Guidebook to state clearly that an IMS should be used as the basis for APB schedule goals.

Again, DHS concurred. PARM is currently revising the guidebook and will clarify the language relating to schedules by March 31, 2020.

Read the full report and detailed program assessments at GAO

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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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