DHS pushed to tighten IT acquisition policies

Officials at the Homeland Security Department have been unaware of the usefulness of independent reviews on their major IT programs, leaving room for unforeseen predicaments in the $6.3 billion spent last year on IT, a report states.

DHS officials said they recognize that independent verification and validation reviews are important to getting the best results from IT projects, but DHS’ acquisition policy doesn’t reflect that view because the policy doesn't deal with the elements of leading practices for the reviews, according to the Government Accountability Office’s July 28 report.

Acquisition and financial officials and program managers don't have clear criteria to determine when a program should get an independent review and policy doesn't spell out how much review a program should get, GAO said. Also, policy doesn't give officials insight into whether they’re investing well by conducting the reviews, the report states.

“Thus, officials were unaware of the extent to which [the reviews were] being used on major IT acquisition programs, associated expenditures, or if those expenditures are producing satisfactory results,” GAO wrote.

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For verifications and validations, an independent party gives an objective assessment of a project’s processes, products, and risks throughout its life. The point is to ensure that officials meet a program's targets for performance, schedule and budget.

When GAO released its report July 28, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the panel's ranking member, said DHS needs to get its act together.

“With a serious debt crisis on our hands, the Department of Homeland Security — like every other agency of the federal government — must stop wasteful spending. The department’s $6 billion annual budget for IT acquisitions is a good place to start,” Lieberman said.

GAO recommended that DHS update its acquisition policy to close off weaknesses in checking out complex IT procurements. Specifically, officials need clear guidance on when to use independent reviews on their projects, and, after conducting a review, they need ways to get important findings into the hands of acquisition officials, the report states.

In a response to GAO on July 19, DHS said it’s prepared to set up departmentwide interim rules on the reviews for managers and overseers, as the department continues to bind together 22 agencies. Officials agreed with all of GAO’s recommendations.

Even with the steps toward improving itself, DHS can expect closer oversight from the senators.

“I will continue to push for improvements in this critical area," Collins said. "Smarter investments can save money and make us safer.”

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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