US-VISIT needs more staff, GAO says

Homeland Security: Risks Facing Key Border and Transportation Security Program Need to Be Addressed

Weak program management could put the Homeland Security Department's massive immigrant-tracking system at risk, congressional auditors say.

Already carrying inherent risks because of its size, scope and cost, the U.S. Visit and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) has insufficient staff in its program management office and problems with existing border systems, according to General Accounting Office officials.

"Our experience in reviewing large, complex, information technology-dependent programs in other federal agencies has shown that such program management weaknesses typically result in these programs falling short of expectations," said Randolph Hite, GAO's director for IT architecture and systems issues, in written testimony.

Hite testified today before the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Border Security and Claims Subcommittee.

US-VISIT should have a formal management structure with an adequately staffed program management office, Hite said. Although DHS established an office in June 2003 that is supposed to have 115 government and 117 contractor personnel, the office is not at full capacity and officials lack a plan for achieving those levels. "Our latest report stated that the US-VISIT program's staffing levels were far below its stated needs," he said in written testimony. "Moreover, specific roles and responsibilities had not been defined beyond general statements."

The roles of the program management staff were organized into categories described by the Software Engineering Institute's Software Acquisition Capability Maturity Model, including acquisition planning, requirements development and management, and contract tracking and oversight. However, those process areas have not been implemented, GAO officials found. DHS officials said it would take time to establish mature program management, according to Hite.

"Until the program office is adequately staffed, positional roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and understood...DHS' efforts to acquire, deploy, operate and maintain system capabilities will be at risk of not producing promised performance levels, functionality, and associated benefits on time and within budget," Hite said.

GAO officials also worried about US-VISIT's reliance on existing systems that have already-identified reliability problems. For example, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), designed to track foreign students and expected to become a part of US-VISIT, has come under fire for being slow and losing or deleting records, Hite said.

US-VISIT also does not have adequate existing facilities to support the system at land ports of entry, GAO officials found. DHS officials plan to build interim facilities at about 40 of the 50 largest land ports to meet the December deadline for implementation. The plans for these facilities were based on current staffing levels and number of inspection booths, and changes to the program could affect the facility requirements, Hite said.

He listed several recommendations to DHS officials in his testimony. Among them were:

* Define program office positions and responsibilities.

* Develop and implement a workforce strategy for the office that provides for personnel with appropriate knowledge and skills.

* Develop a plan for satisfying key acquisition management controls.

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