GAO tells DHS to Improve Information Storage

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has found that the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) uses disparate information sources to identify and track R&D project information.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002, as amended, designates S&T as responsible for coordinating all R&D activities of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Questions have been raised about S&T’s ability to demonstrate the impact of its R&D investments. Since DHS began operations in 2003, GAO has made recommendations to help improve DHS’s efforts to coordinate and oversee R&D.

GAO was asked to review DHS’s R&D efforts and its March 21 report examines how much DHS has obligated for R&D and what types of R&D DHS conducts. It also considers to what extent S&T coordinates R&D across DHS, and how, if at all, DHS identifies and tracks R&D efforts.

The review found that DHS obligated more than $10 billion for R&D from fiscal years 2010 through 2017. Seven DHS components have budget authority to conduct R&D, and S&T obligated nearly 80 percent of all DHS R&D funds during this time period. These components conduct a wide range of R&D, from cybersecurity to border security projects. S&T generally leads or funds R&D projects by providing technology and knowledge products to support four homeland security mission areas: disaster resilience, critical incidents, border security, and cybersecurity.

GAO reports that S&T strengthened its R&D coordination efforts across DHS, but some challenges remain. In 2015, DHS established an R&D coordination mechanism, to be led by S&T, and in 2017 issued R&D coordination-related guidance. Specifically, to improve coordination, DHS established an Integrated Product Team (IPT) process to serve as the key R&D coordination mechanism within DHS. All ten DHS components that GAO interviewed stated that the IPT process improved visibility into DHS R&D efforts. However, the component that obligated approximately 17 percent of DHS R&D funds in 2017, or $176 million, did not participate in the IPT process in 2018, as required. GAO says such nonparticipation poses a risk to R&D coordination efforts across DHS, including R&D project information not being shared among components. Furthermore, ensuring that all required components participate in the IPT process would help S&T maintain visibility of R&D projects in order to fulfill its statutory role of coordinating R&D, and mitigate the risk of potential duplication of effort.

The review also revealed that S&T, in its coordination role for DHS, uses disparate information sources to identify and track R&D project information and faces challenges to track progress and other information for ongoing R&D projects. For example, R&D project information is stored in multiple information sources (reports, data systems, etc) leading to difficulty in integrating complete R&D project information and resulting in reporting that is not comprehensive. A mechanism to address these challenges is required so that S&T can further improve its efforts to report and analyze R&D project information, and have improved visibility on R&D efforts across DHS.

Among other challenges, GAO says DHS is not well positioned to integrate the results and share lessons learned because limited R&D customer feedback information is collected and analyzed. Of the seven DHS components with R&D budget authority, two reported having formal customer feedback mechanisms (U.S. Coast Guard and S&T). Informal feedback is in place in some components. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), for example, does not have a formal mechanism for collecting and analyzing customer feedback. However, TSA officials told GAO that informal feedback may be obtained through review of the weekly reports and meetings regarding recent developments and project milestones. In addition, feedback may be obtained during quarterly program management reviews, third party project development, and certification testing.

Without formal feedback, GAO says DHS is unable to fully understand its customers’ perceptions and experience which would allow DHS to better assess the performance of its R&D efforts.

The GAO report makes four recommendations, with which DHS has concurred:

  1. All components should adhere to IPT participation requirements, in accordance with the DHS directives.
  2. Develop a mechanism that aligns processes and information sources for collecting R&D project data from DHS components to ensure that the information can be collected, integrated and result in a comprehensive accounting of R&D projects DHS-wide.
  3. Direct OCFO program officials to ensure that S&T take steps to more fully incorporate leading practices, such as those included in DHS’s budget preparation guidance, into R&D milestones.
  4. Develop standard processes and procedures for collecting and analyzing customer feedback, applicable to components conducting R&D, for improving the usefulness of existing customer feedback mechanisms to assess R&D efforts and for implementing such mechanisms where absent.

DHS stated that the first two and fourth recommendations are expected to be implemented by December 2019, with efforts to meet the third recommendation due to complete by April 30 2020.

Read the full report at GAO

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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