Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf delivers the State of the Homeland address on Sept. 9, 2020, at DHS headquarters. (DHS photo)

OIG on the Six Biggest Challenges Facing DHS

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) says the Department of Homeland Security is facing several serious management and performance challenges.

In its annual Major Management and Performance Challenges report, OIG underscores the need for consistent leadership. Many of the Department’s senior leadership positions still do not have permanent, Presidentially Appointed and Senate confirmed officials. DHS Secretary Wolf’s appointment has come under much scrutiny, which has recently resurfaced, and individual components have also suffered from the number of leadership changes.

OIG says the six primary challenges facing DHS are:

  • Performing fully and effectively during COVID-19;  
  • Countering terrorism and homeland security threats;  
  • Ensuring proper financial management;  
  • Ensuring Information Technology (IT) supports essential mission operations;  
  • Improving FEMA’s contracts and grants management, disaster assistance, and fraud prevention; and  
  • Strengthening oversight and management of major systems acquisition. 

In terms of COVID-19 operation, OIG had previously (2014 and 2016) raised concerns over workforce preparedness during a pandemic. DHS has however responded relatively well considering the challenges faced and made arrangements for remote working for those who can. For those who can’t work from home, such as staff at detention centers, various actions have been taken to prevent and mitigate the pandemic’s spread among staff as well as detainees.

OIG reports that DHS also recently faced the prospect of having to furlough almost 70 percent of its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) workforce reportedly due to decreased revenues related to COVID-19. Although the watchdog says the component has been able to maintain operations through FY 2020, there is no guarantee it can avoid future furloughs. 

Drawing from its reviews over the last year, OIG reports that DHS continues to face challenges mitigating threats posed by high-risk cargo from foreign airports, countering Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-UAS), using canines effectively, executing successful covert testing, protecting commercial facilities, and defending food, agriculture, and veterinary systems against terrorism and other high-consequence events in the United States. 

The watchdog also highlighted that many key DHS financial systems do not comply with federal financial management system requirements, as defined in the Federal Financial Management Improvement Act of 1996. It has recognized recent improvement work but believes that inherent deficiencies may hinder DHS’ ability to ensure proper financial planning payments and appropriate internal controls related to CARES Act funding. 

DHS faces ongoing challenges ensuring IT systems and infrastructure adequately support Department personnel. Often, the workforce has used ad hoc methods because of system limitations resulting from a lack of funding or guidance. OIG’s report says DHS has not yet leveraged the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2017 mandate to accelerate ongoing IT modernization efforts, as DHS and its components questioned whether the benefits of the Act outweighed the additional effort needed to use the resources provided under the Act. 

And OIG says DHS still faces challenges to improving the quality of cyber threat information it shares across federal and private sector entities. A review into CISA’s lack of progress in improving the quality of information it shares was attributed to a number of factors, such as limited numbers of participants sharing cyber indicators with CISA, delays receiving cyber threat intelligence standards, and insufficient CISA office staff. 

The watchdog continues to observe systemic problems and operational difficulties that it says contribute to FEMA not managing disaster relief grants and supplies adequately. FEMA has not always followed procurement laws, regulations, and procedures, nor has it ensured disaster grant recipients and subrecipients understand and comply with relevant authorities. FEMA has also proven susceptible to widespread fraud and made billions in improper payments, often due to lax oversight, says OIG. For example, reviews in 2020 have illustrated that FEMA continues to make ineligible payments from the disaster relief fund by not complying with federal regulations and its own policies and guidelines.

Addressing the sixth challenge, OIG identified weaknesses in system acquisition capabilities. These included OIG’s report from July 2020, where it found CBP did not demonstrate the acquisition capabilities needed to execute the Analyze/Select Phase of the Southern Border Wall Acquisition Program effectively. Specifically, OIG found CBP did not conduct an Analysis of Alternatives to assess and select the most effective, appropriate, and affordable solutions to obtain operational control of the southern border as directed, but instead relied on prior outdated border solutions to identify materiel alternatives for meeting its mission requirement. The review also said CBP did not use a sound, well-documented methodology to identify and prioritize investments in areas along the border that would best benefit from physical barriers. 

Wrapping up its annual report, OIG said “achieving progress requires steady leadership, unity of effort, and a commitment to mastering management fundamentals”. By establishing a strong, overarching internal control structure to reinforce established goals and objectives, OIG believes DHS will be better able to assign roles and responsibilities, promote coordination of resources and cooperation among programs and operations, promulgate necessary policies and procedures, and ensure compliance and accountability. 

Read the full report at OIG

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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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