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DHS Needs to Better Define Acquisition Oversight Roles, Improve Reporting to Congress

In Fiscal Year 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported it planned to spend $10.7 billion on major acquisition programs to reduce the probability of a terrorist attack, protect against disease, mitigate natural hazards and secure borders. But it "lacks written guidance for a consistent approach to day-to-day oversight,” according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit.

The audit report said, “Federal standards for internal control call for organizations to define and document key areas of responsibility in order to effectively plan, direct and control operations to achieve agency objectives." Nevertheless, while GAO said DHS has taken steps to improve oversight of its major acquisition programs in recent years, it still hasn’t implemented many of GAO’s previous recommendations for reform.

“DHS has defined the role of the Component Acquisition Executive, the senior acquisition official within each component, and established monthly meetings to discuss programs that require management attention,” but the department “has not defined all of the roles and responsibilities of the Office of Program Accountability and Risk Management (PARM)—the lead body responsible for overseeing the acquisition process and assessing the status of acquisition programs—and other headquarters organizations,” GAO’s audit reported.

GAO said it “also found that officials’ involvement and relationships with components varied significantly. DHS does not have a structure in place for overseeing the costs of 42 programs in sustainment (that is, programs that have been fielded and are operational) for which acquisition documentation requirements were waived in 2013. Sustainment costs can account for more than 80 percent of total costs, and all but one of these programs lack an approved cost estimate. GAO also previously reported that cost estimates are necessary to support decisions about program funding and resources.”

Continuing, GAO’s audit report revealed that, “The most recent data that PARM provided to DHS and congressional decision makers for oversight were not consistently accurate and up-to-date. Specifically, PARM’s FY 2014 Comprehensive Acquisition Status Report (CASR), which was based on FY 2013 data, contained inaccurate information on DHS acquisition programs. To develop the CASR, PARM drew from DHS’s official system for acquisition program reporting, the Next Generation Periodic Reporting System (nPRS); however, the system is hampered by data issues, including inconsistent participation by program officials responsible for entering the data.”

“Further,” GAO stated, “DHS has not provided useful information for certain CASR reporting requirements. DHS interpreted one requirement in a way that eliminated the need to report cost, schedule, or performance changes for almost half of the programs in the CASR. Holding programs accountable for maintaining their data in nPRS and providing decision makers with more in-depth information would enhance future acquisition reports and render the CASR a more effective instrument for DHS and congressional oversight.”

GAO said it “reviewed DHS policies and procedures and interviewed oversight and acquisition officials from all nine DHS components with at least one major acquisition program with a life-cycle cost estimate exceeding $1 billion. From these components, GAO selected a non-generalizable sample of nine major acquisition programs with a variety of characteristics to compare PARM oversight activities and review program data.”

GAO recommended DHS take a number of actions including developing written guidance for a consistent approach to oversight, addressing programs in sustainment and enhancing data quality and reports to Congress.

DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

“As DHS did, I [also] agree with GAO’s recommendations (they were, and are, typically very helpful), however, I would add one thing — DHS needs people to effectively carry out everything that is on paper (rules, guidelines, etc.),” Homeland Security Today was told by former DHS Chief Procurement Officer Dr. Nick Nayak, who along with former DHS procurement ombudsman Jose Arrieta wrote, Partnering with Industry is Key to Improving Acquisition Outcomes, in the Aug./Sept. 2014 issues of Homeland Security Today.

Nayak explained that, “There simply are not enough cost estimators or program management people to carry out the oversight everyone wants.”

“DHS programs are large and complex, much like DoD, and they simply do not have the capability (through people) to get every single thing done,” Nayak said, emphasizing, “The limited people in place perform heroically — because they are mission driven to protect the country – [but] they are stretched so far that it is humanly impossible to sustain that level of performance over time.”

And it all leads “to another problem,” Nayak said, which is “employee burnout, low morale and ultimately high turnover.”

“Everyone has good intentions, and sometimes you just need more people,” Nayak said.

Last September, the Washington Post’s Jerry Markon, Ellen Nakashima and Alice Crites wrote that, “Over the past four years, employees have left DHS at a rate nearly twice as fast as in the federal government overall, and the trend is accelerating.” They said, “The departures are a result of what employees widely describe as a dysfunctional work environment, abysmal morale and the lure of private security companies paying top dollar that have proliferated” since 9/11.

According to the Office of Personnel Management’s FedScope database of federal employees, between Fiscal Year 2010 and FY 2013, there was a 31 percent escalation in the number of yearly exoduses of permanent employees from DHS – almost half of the percentage of retreats for the entire government.

The Post also noted that, “Members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) — the government’s top career managers — also are leaving DHS at a much higher rate. In 2013, SES departures were up 56 percent from the year before.”

Nayak, the department’s longtime chief procurement officer, and David Heyman, DHS’s top policy chief, both left DHS after completing the department’s quadrennial review.

Between June 2011 and March 2012, four senior DHS cybersecurity officials quit.

The Post pointed out that DHS’s counterterrorism branch “has cycled through six directors during the Obama administration, decimating morale and contributing to months-long delays in releasing intelligence reports, according to interviews and government reports,” and that, “A parade of high-level departures, on top of other factors, has meanwhile helped slow the rollout of key cybersecurity initiatives, including a program aimed at blocking malicious software before it can infiltrate civilian government computers, former officials say.”

Customs and Border Protection, for instance, has had six commissioners under President Obama, four of them in a caretaker role because they were not confirmed by the Senate.

And at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) … the hemorrhaging of both senior and junior personnel has “had a tremendous effect,” said Kenneth Kasprisin, a former acting TSA head who left last May.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson earlier said the department faced “a leadership vacuum … of alarming proportions.”

In response to the Post’s story, Johnson quickly issued a statement in which he said the newspaper’s report “is about the past and disregards the present. The story’s portrayal of the Department of Homeland Security is unrecognizable to anyone acquainted with the remarkable reconstruction of this agency over the last nine months. In fact, over the last nine months there have been 12 presidential appointments to senior-level positions in this department. Each of these appointees has pledged to serve until at least the end of this administration. In fact, 90 percent of all positions at the SES level and above across this 240,000-person department are now filled.”

But DHS still appears to have a morale problem among a number of agencies, officials said, including TSA, Border Patrol, the Federal Air Marshals Service and the US Secret Service, to name a few.

GAO said, “DHS employee job satisfaction declined in fiscal year 2012 and 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey [FEVS] results. Specifically, 2013 FEVS data show that DHS employee satisfaction decreased 7 percentage points since 2011, which is more than the government-wide decrease of 4 percentage points over the same time period. As a result, the gap between average DHS employee satisfaction and the government-wide average widened to 7 percentage points.”

GAO also said, “DHS has consistently scored lower than the government-wide average on the FEVS Leadership and Knowledge Management index, which indicates the extent to which employees hold their leadership in high regard. Since 2011, DHS’s scores for this index have decreased 5 percentage points, widening the gap between the DHS average and the government-wide average to 9 percentage points.

DHS came in last among the largest federal agencies whose leadership inspires the workforce and spurs their commitment. Slightly more than half of the workforce believes leadership is effective, and 48 percent said the department has the necessary talent to achieve its overall goals.

GAO regards government operations to be high risk when they present substantive vulnerabilities to traditional Washington, DC problems like fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement and the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency and effectiveness challenges.

“My concern is that DHS may become hamstrung by its own long tail and politicization,” said an industry cybersecurity executive who was on a short list for a senior DHS cyber post. “I see a very large organization spread thin in too many areas, and without a strong rudder, and deficient in the articulation of a meaningful strategy. I am sure there is one, but it seems to have been lost to the voice of politics.”

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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