Construction crews work to erect border fencing along a levee near the Rio Grande in a remote area south of Weslaco, Texas, on Jan. 13, 2020. (CBP Photo by Glenn Fawcett)

GAO Warns That DHS Acquisition Programs Face Future Cost Growth or Schedule Slips

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to spend more than $7 billion on its portfolio of major acquisition programs—with life-cycle costs over $300 million— in fiscal year 2021 to help execute its many critical missions. 

Since 2015, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reviewed DHS’s major acquisitions on an ongoing basis. In its January 19 report, GAO notes both positive actions taken and areas of concern from its sixth review.

As of September 2020, 19 of the 24 DHS programs GAO assessed that had DHS approved acquisition program baselines were meeting their currently established goals. However, of the 24 programs, ten had been in breach of their cost or schedule goals, or both, at some point during fiscal year 2020. A few programs experienced breaches related to external factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, while others breached their baseline goals because of acquisition management issues. Five of these programs rebaselined to increase costs or delay schedules, but the remaining five were still in breach status as of September 2020. These were the National Cybersecurity Protection System program ($5,908 million), the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology program ($3,923 million), the Grants Management Modernization program ($289 million), the National Bio Agro-Defense Facility program ($1,298 million), and the Medium Range Surveillance Aircraft program ($15,187 million). All were in breach of schedule. The Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology and Grant Management Modernization programs were also found to be in breach of cost.

GAO’s review also found that some of the 19 programs that were meeting their currently established goals are at risk of future cost growth or schedule slips.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Border Wall System Program was found to be at risk for additional schedule slips as a result of continuing issues acquiring land necessary to construct the border wall. President Biden has announced that all work on the wall is to be halted, sparing any potential overspend. Program officials told GAO that as a result of the outbreak of COVID-19 and social distancing requirements, there have been challenges meeting with land owners, In addition, some courts have been closed, which limits the ability to search county records and hold hearings related to land possession. CBP’s Integrated Fixed Tower program is also at risk of additional schedule slips, which officials attribute in part to time needed to allow for the preservation of archaeological sites that were uncovered while building access roads to tower sites. 

GAO found that the U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Security Cutter will likely experience a schedule slip because planned delivery of the lead ship is two months after its acquisition program baseline (APB) threshold date. Further, during a briefing to Coast Guard leadership in April 2020, program officials reported that the program’s aggressive schedule continues to be one of its most significant risks. In September 2020, DHS officials told GAO that the program plans to rebaseline in late calendar year 2020 or early 2021 to update its cost and schedule goals based on contractor information not available when the baseline was established. 

In addition, Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol Cutter is at risk of additional schedule slips and cost growth. GAO reported in October 2020 that the Offshore Patrol Cutter program “continues to move forward in the acquisition process with an immature design as well as cost and schedule risks”. After the shipbuilder requested relief from certain requirements under contract following widespread disruptions from Hurricane Michael in October 2018, the Coast Guard divided the program into two stages and a revised baseline in March 2020. Under this revised plan, the current shipbuilder will build up to four cutters in the first stage, while the acquisition of the remaining 21 cutters will be awarded under one or more new contracts in fiscal year 2022 in the second stage. GAO notes however that the program’s revised baseline does not include a schedule or a refined cost estimate that fully account for these changes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably put a spanner in several acquisition efforts. For example, CBP’s Biometric Entry-Exit and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Transformation programs reported shortfalls in fees the government collects from immigration services that are used to fund these programs. According to officials, collection of fees for these services has been significantly reduced, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. CBP officials told GAO that they have prior year funding available to mitigate funding shortfalls in fiscal year 2020, but they are coordinating with component and DHS officials to address anticipated funding gaps in fiscal year 2021. Similarly, Transformation program officials said they are coordinating with U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services officials and also are assessing staffing needs based on workload and fees collected. 

In other instances, programs reported that social distancing requirements—the practice of maintaining physical distance from others and avoiding large gatherings to reduce the rate of infectious diseases— as well as travel restrictions have resulted in schedule delays and limited the ability of some contractors to perform work as expected. For example, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s Next Generation Networks – Priority Services program reported delays in testing due to social distancing requirements, which limited the number of officials allowed within lab spaces. 

Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Electronic Baggage Screening Program reported delays in testing due to social distancing requirements. According to program officials, the TSA Systems Integration Facility prioritized testing of certain technologies, but the delays have not had a significant effect on the program’s schedule. 

During the course of its sixth review, the watchdog found that supplemental guidance for the development of acquisition documents generally aligned with requirements in DHS’s acquisition management policy. However, its report notes that “guidance for developing acquisition documentation in DHS’s Systems Engineering Life Cycle Instruction and accompanying Guidebook does not reflect current requirements in DHS’s acquisition management policy”. DHS officials told GAO that the information related to development of acquisition documents—including the systems engineering life cycle tailoring plan—should be consistent across all of DHS’s policies, instructions, and guidebooks. 

The Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying a bill to the DHS Appropriations Act, 2019, directed DHS to provide quarterly briefings on summary ratings for all major acquisition programs. While GAO found that DHS is meeting this direction with summary ratings, the ratings do not include contextual information, such as programs’ cost, schedule, or performance risks. Without more information on the current status of DHS’s major acquisition programs and the risks these programs are facing that might affect future performance, congressional decision makers lack key information to inform their critical oversight responsibilities and budgetary decisions. 

GAO is making one recommendation for DHS to align acquisition guidance with policy – with which DHS concurs – and one matter for Congress to consider determining what additional information it needs to perform oversight.

Read the full report including detailed reviews of each program 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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