GAO: DHS is still a work in progress

Congressional auditors tell agency what it must do to improve IT management

A progress report on the Homeland Security Department

The Government Accountability Office issued a report Sept. 6 on the progress the Homeland Security Department has made in merging 22 disparate agencies since the department was formed more than four years ago. DHS made variable progress in several areas.

Substantial progress in:


  • Maritime security.

Moderate progress in:

  • Immigration enforcement.
  • Aviation security.
  • Surface transportation security.
  • Critical infrastructure protection.
  • Real property management.

Modest progress in:

  • Border security.
  • Immigration services.
  • Acquisition management.
  • Financial management.

Limited progress in:

  • Emergency preparedness and response.
  • Information technology management.
  • Human capital management.
  • Science and technology.

— Mary Mosquera

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Find a link to GAO’s progress report on the Homeland Security Department on FCW.com’s Download at www.fcw.com/download.

“Lack of continuity is a problem across government.” David Walker, Government Accountability Office

In four years, the Homeland Security Department has made progress toward its mission of making the country safer and becoming a better-managed agency, lawmakers and congressional auditors said this month.

But in a progress report, the Government Accountability Office also expressed disappointment and impatience about several long-standing shortcomings GAO said DHS officials have not addressed.

Comptroller General David Walker told senators at a recent hearing that the country is safer than it was Sept. 11, 2001, but he reported that DHS has failed to meet several significant management and security benchmarks. Walker told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that DHS has missed the mark on important goals that it should have reached.

Although DHS has taken steps to turn its 22 agencies into a functioning department, it has not begun a departmentwide transformation strategy or applied risk management in implementing its mission and management functions, Walker told the committee.

“I don’t think government spends enough time on management in mergers that can be far more complex than in the private sector,” Walker said. “You must not only have competence but continuity within and between administrations to accomplish this transformation. We have found that successful transformations of large organizations, even those faced with less strenuous reorganizations than DHS, can take at least five to seven years to achieve.”

DHS has had high turnover among its senior executives: In its four-year history, the department has had two secretaries, three deputy secretaries and two undersecretaries for management.

“Lack of continuity is a problem across government,” Walker added.
Several senators echoed Walker’s concerns about DHS. It not surprising that DHS still is a work in progress, but it needs to pick up the pace for the country to prevent terrorism and respond to emergencies and disasters, said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the committee.

The Sept. 6 GAO report presents performance metrics and shows how auditors rated DHS’ performance against those metrics. Collins called the report a road map for progress.

“It is, however, disturbing to see limited progress in four areas as critical as human capital management, information technology management, science and technology, and emergency preparedness and response,” Collins said at the Sept. 6 hearing. “With so much at stake and so many areas where progress is still required, America cannot settle for a mixed report card.”

DHS fell short of meeting more than half of the expectations that GAO established for it in 14 major mission and management areas. Of 171 expectations, DHS met 78 and fell short on 83 of them. GAO did not evaluate 10 metrics, according to the report.

DHS suffers from a lack of a comprehensive management strategy and changing priorities and leadership, the report states.

The report also focuses on DHS’ IT problems. Much of the work that DHS performs relies on technology. Its IT problems stem from the department’s reliance on older systems that DHS has not integrated, Walker said.

DHS has done many things right, Walker added. The department has an enterprise architecture for managing its system investments, it has an information security program, and it has centralized responsibility for IT under a chief information officer.

However, he said, DHS lacks a strategy for managing IT, a comprehensive enterprise architecture, measures to assess performance in IT management, and policies and procedures for effective systems development and acquisition.

One critic said the department could benefit from more IT leadership from DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. Technology is the backbone of the agency’s ability to respond, said Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security. He is a former Justice Department official.

“If you don’t have IT that works, everything that everyone is doing is getting lost in the ether,” Greenberger said. For example, intelligence about border crossings put into systems for storage, sharing and analysis may not be processed effectively, he said.
The DHS secretary must have people reporting to him on a daily basis about what progress has been made, Greenberger said.

“Unless you have that coming from the top, people are just going to kick it down the road because the administration is coming to an end,” Greenberger said. “A secretary of Homeland Security should not go to bed at night unless he’s checked that there is progress made toward getting these problems fixed.”

Committee chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said DHS must create new capabilities for information sharing, state and local preparedness and coordination, critical infrastructure protection, and research and development.

“The lessons of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina taught us that they must work together seamlessly to ensure a proper federal response that uses every tool available,” Lieberman said. “We still have a long way to go before the many components of the department work as an integrated whole.”

GAO did not offer more recommendations in its Sept. 6 report, citing 700 previous recommendations that DHS continues to address.
Paul Schneider, DHS’ undersecretary for management, expressed satisfaction with GAO’s assessment of the department’s performance in 78 areas. “We are pushing ourselves to strengthen the department and are committed to strengthening its management and operational capabilities,” Schneider said. However, he criticized GAO’s progress report overall, saying that it was based on flawed methodology.

“The GAO report is based on vague and shifting criteria, standards and performance expectations,” Schneider said. He added that GAO did not properly credit DHS for being on track in implementing long-term initiatives, such as the U. S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.

Walker said DHS has had to reassess its priorities and reallocate its resources in response to the disasters of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, attacks on transportation systems in other countries, and new responsibilities and authorities imposed by Congress.

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