The Department of Homeland Security will be putting leadership stability at the top of its Christmas list this year, after changes and vacancies in the top ranks have compounded an already challenging environment.
A new Inspector General (OIG) report defined the most pressing challenges facing the third largest federal agency as:
- Managing Programs and Operations Effectively and Efficiently during times of Changes in Leadership, Vacancies, and Hiring Difficulties;
- Coordinating Efforts to Address the Sharp Increase in Migrants Seeking to Enter the United States through our Southern Border;
- Ensuring Cybersecurity in an Age When Confidentiality, Integrity, and the Availability of Information Technology Are Essential to Mission Operations;
- Ensuring Proper Financial Planning, Payments, and Internal Controls; and
- Improving FEMA’s Disaster Response and Recovery Efforts.
The Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Under Secretary for Management, Under Secretary for the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans, and DHS Component Heads are responsible for tackling these challenges. Unfortunately, many of these senior leadership positions continue to suffer from a lack of permanent, Presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed officials. As of September 21, 2019, “acting” officials filled almost one-third (18 of 58) of DHS senior leadership positions.
One of the areas feeling the impact of the lack of consistent, permanent leadership is election security. OIG found DHS had taken some steps to mitigate risks to the nation’s election infrastructure; however, “improved planning, more staff, and clearer guidance could facilitate its coordination with states”. Specifically, despite Federal requirements, “DHS had not completed plans and strategies critical to identifying emerging threats and mitigation activities and to establishing metrics to measure progress in securing the election infrastructure. Senior leadership turnover and a lack of guidance and administrative staff hindered DHS’ ability to accomplish this planning.”
Furthermore, the department’s 240,000 employees work in an environment marked by “high attrition, changing mandates, and difficulties implementing permanent plans, procedures, and programs”, said OIG. One consequence of high attrition is the millions of dollars spent on training new employees, who leave shortly after. For example, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spent nearly $75 million to train more than 9,000 new Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) in fiscal year 2017. Approximately 20 percent of these trained TSOs left within 6 months of being hired.
OIG’s report also stated that DHS is struggling to direct and deploy available resources to manage ports of entry, Border Patrol stations, and processing centers in response to unprecedented migration at the U.S. Southern Border. These challenges are most evident in the Rio Grande Valley Sector, which reported nearly a quarter million apprehensions in the first 8 months of fiscal year 2019.
“During the past several years, but particularly in FY 2019, we have observed and continue to document serious gaps in communication, information sharing, and effective oversight in these internal and external partnerships,” said the Inspector General.
The report highlighted the dangerous overcrowding that OIG had previously identified at Border Patrol stations and repeated its call for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to address these issues.
Regarding cyber vulnerabilities, OIG said these exist across all Federal agencies and in nonfederal entities and organizations, such as private companies, state, local, tribal, and territorial governments. As a whole, DHS is tackling the cyber threat well and better than some other federal agencies, particularly in the area of information security. However, within DHS some worrying weaknesses remain, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) release of 2.3 million hurricane survivors’ personal data to a contractor. In addition, the Inspector General said DHS is in need of a cybersecurity workforce assessment.
The report noted that “DHS has made strides in establishing certain management fundamentals, including by obtaining an unmodified, or clean, opinion on its financial statements for six consecutive years. However, DHS still cannot obtain such an opinion on its internal controls over financial reporting. This means the department can assemble reasonably accurate financial statements at the end of the fiscal year, but it has no assurance that its financial information is accurate and up-to-date throughout the year.”
On November 14, independent public accounting firm KPMG LLP announced the results of its annual audit of the department’s consolidated financial statements and internal control over financial reporting. KPMG identified material weaknesses in internal control in two areas and other significant deficiencies in three areas.
The material weaknesses identified were information technology controls and financial systems; and financial reporting. The other significant deficiencies were in property, plant and equipment; custodial activities; and grants management.
KPMG also reported two instances of noncompliance with laws and regulations, namely the Federal Managers’ Financial Integrity Act of 1982 and the Federal Financial Management Improvement Act of 1996.
The firm made more than 20 recommendations, which OIG calls for DHS to implement.
Finally, OIG reported on FEMA’s “systemic problems and operational difficulties that contribute to FEMA not managing disaster relief grants and funds adequately”. The Inspector General found that, at times, procurement laws, regulations, and procedures, were not followed, nor did FEMA ensure disaster grant recipients and subrecipients understand and comply with these same authorities. PIG cited the example of when FEMA awarded more than $30 million for two contracts to Bronze Star for tarps and plastic sheeting. “As a result of management control weaknesses, FEMA inappropriately awarded two contracts to Bronze Star, which did not meet the requirements of either contract.”
OIG has previously found that FEMA’s disaster assistance programs are highly susceptible to fraud, waste, and abuse, which poses significant risk to taxpayer investment. The Inspector General has therefore targeted oversight work to promote fraud prevention. Despite some progress, OIG believes FEMA should take “additional, proactive steps to create and sustain a culture of fraud prevention and awareness”.
The Inspector General delivered the report to Kevin McAleenan on the day he was succeeded by Chad Wolf, who now becomes the fifth person to lead DHS under President Trump. White House staff had previously advised Trump that that his top picks Ken Cuccinelli and Mark Morgan were ineligible for appointment to the acting secretary role under federal agency succession law.
The DHS – and Wolf himself – will no doubt be hoping for a long term for Kirstjen Nielsen’s former chief of staff in the hope that stability will help the department tackle the challenges ahead.