DHS’ IT overhaul is paying off, but challenges lie ahead

The Homeland Security Department has undergone an overhaul of its IT systems since CIO Richard Spires took over three years ago, and according to a new Government Accountability Office report, it’s producing results.

DHS earned praise for its leadership commitment to information-sharing – including its governance board convened to set policy and guide decision-making – and for establishing processes that boost priority initiatives. But GAO cautioned that to sustain the progress, the agency will need to improve how it assesses its various information-sharing efforts. The report also noted that funding shortfalls are threatening advancement.

Most of the agency's 18 key information-sharing initiatives have met interim milestones, according to report. But the progress has slowed for half of them, partly because  of funding constraints.

Spires has been a champion of new governance and enterprise IT, instituting the executive governance board to target information-sharing and thorough review of DHS’ portfolio of IT systems. With DHS comprising a number of different agencies with very different missions and requirements, it’s been a particular challenge to bring everything together, Spires has said.

“We brought together DHS from 22 separate organizations, all crammed together – you’d expect to have a lot of duplication and overlap, right?” he said in June at an ACT-IAC event in Washington. “We all know in government you can’t [achieve efficiencies] in six months or a year; these are multi-year kinds of things we’re trying to achieve. We’re doing this from a portfolio standpoint by function rather than looking at each one of the components individually. That’s my strategy.”

While the strategy is yielding results – which GAO notes is particularly critical in light of recent planned and attempted terror attacks on US soil – there still needs to be better self-analysis that targets gaps in information-sharing, according to the report.

For instance, the lack of revised policies and guidance for finding the gaps and analyzing the root causes means the agency has no formal record that would help replicate the efforts in the future. DHS also isn’t adequately keeping track of the initiatives’ impact, including on national security.

“DHS has taken steps to track its information-sharing efforts, but has not yet fully assessed how they have improved sharing. Specifically, DHS is tracking the implementation progress of key information-sharing initiatives, but the department does not maintain completion dates and does not fully assess the impact initiatives are having on sharing,” the report stated, although it did note that DHS “plans to develop ways to assess information-sharing results toward achieving its 2015 vision.”

The GAO report also highlighted budgetary problems in DHS’ efforts, including funding shortfalls in five of eight top-priority initiatives in information sharing. Part of the problem is that the agency has to compete for funding with the individual components, according to GAO.

In June, Spires acknowledged the financial hurdles DHS faces as it tackles a massive, enterprise-wide effort that is critical to national security.

“We have to make sure we effectively obligate the funds that are available to us. [Fiscal 2013] is a flat-out wild card,” he said. “It’s hard to know where things will end up. You can bet across the board in IT and DHS…we’re going to be going very conservative, backing off and going slow as far as obligations go. Suffice it to say, budgets in IT are not going to be going up.”

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