DHS struggles under oversight

Lawmakers and DHS still at odds over the magnitude of the problem

Under pressure from Congress, the Homeland Security Department is moving ahead with a series of reform measures designed to improve its responsiveness to federal oversight, although DHS and oversight officials still disagree about the extent of the problem.

The Government Accountability Office said DHS continues to stonewall GAO auditors who are trying to monitor the department’s operations. Norman Rabkin, GAO’s managing director for homeland security issues, testified April 25 that his agency is having difficulties completing some DHS program reviews expeditiously because of the delays.

“We often wait for months for information, which in some cases could be provided immediately,” Rabkin told the House Homeland Security Committee’s Management, Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee. Asked about the source of the problem, Rabkin suggested the problem was with DHS’ executives.

“My sense is that the problems start at the top,” Rabkins said. “There’s a tone that’s set at the top.”

Rep. Christopher Carney (D-Pa.), chairman of the subcommittee, and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the full committee, said further stonewalling is unacceptable.

“When the GAO or the [inspector general] requests documents or witnesses, the department needs to produce them, not shuffle the request from one layer of bureaucracy to another,” Thompson said.

DHS offered a contrite response to the criticism. Paul Schneider, undersecretary for management at DHS, said the department is aware of the seriousness of the problem. Schneider was appointed to his position four months ago, capping a long civil-service career.

“I’ve worked with GAO and IG investigators for 40 years,” he said. “I’ve never experienced problems such as the ones being discussed today. We need to do a better job.”

Schneider said DHS has started to implement procedures to address the problem. For example, he said, DHS employees will be graded in their annual performance reviews on how quickly they respond to requests for information from oversight officials.

DHS is exploring ways to speed its responses to information requests, Schneider said.  In the future, DHS officials want to provide more guidance for employees on how to work with federal oversight officials, he said. However, he added, he was a bit perplexed by the level of complaint from GAO because he thought DHS’ past cooperation had been substantial. 

Schneider also took issue with GAO’s “tone at the top” concern. “I have seen just the opposite,” he said, adding that DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff was supportive of the work of the IG’s office.

That remark prompted Carney to observe that Schneider’s testimony seemed to contain opposing views, with DHS conceding the seriousness of the problem but also suggesting that congressional complaints were excessive. “Which is it?” Carney asked.

Carney said he was concerned that DHS would pay lip service to the criticism but not take sufficient corrective actions. “I’m worried that the department is only playing nice,” he said.

Carney added that the subcommittee would continue to monitor DHS’ cooperation. “If there is a problem, I will hear about it. And that means you will hear about it,” Carney said, addressing Schneider.

Tarallo is a freelance writer based in Washington.
GAO: DHS is hot and cold about oversightThe Homeland Security Department is, to say the least, inconsistent in its response to oversight, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In one case, GAO noted that DHS has been forthcoming in allowing GAO to review the Secure Border Initiative. “Our work on SBI has so far met with a very welcome degree of access,” said Norman Rabkin, GAO’s managing director for homeland security issues.

But in other cases, GAO encountered very slow responses to requests for information, Rabkin said. For example, when GAO was asked to review the effectiveness of a DHS emergency preparedness exercise in June 2006, GAO auditors allowed DHS five months for data gathering and analysis. GAO planned to release the report in November 2006. 

But DHS did not release all the requested documents until March of this year. “Days turn into weeks,” Rabkin said. “Weeks turn into months.”

And the report GAO scheduled for release in November 2006 still hasn’t been issued. The document is scheduled for release later this year.

— Mark Tarallo

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