DHS still has growing pains, comptroller says

Department has made progress but still faces management difficulties

Eight years after its creation, the Homeland Security Department still has problems integrating as an organization, according to Gene Dodaro, comptroller general of the United States, who heads the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO publishes its annual list of High-Risk Programs to highlight programs vulnerable to mismanagement, waste, fraud and abuse. As of February there were 30 programs on the list, including DHS' transformation.

DHS started 2003 as a new department formed by reorganizing and combining 22 agencies. Its ability to function as an integrated department has been on the GAO’s high-risk list since 2003, Dodaro told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Sept. 7.

“While DHS has made progress, its transformation remains high risk due to its management challenges,” Dodaro testified.

Related stories:

GAO releases update on high-risk programs

DHS ranks high on GAO's high-risk list

Dodaro provided an overview of progress and gaps in DHS operations over the years. Despite having achieved important goals and milestones, the department needs to continue to fix weaknesses, he said.

Examples of successful programs include the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review framework for homeland security, and the National Response Framework for disaster response.

He also cited the establishment of the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team to help coordinate cybersecurity efforts.

“Such accomplishments are noteworthy given that DHS has had to work to transform itself into a fully functioning department while implementing its missions — a difficult undertaking that can take years to achieve,” Dodaro said.

However, he noted numerous gaps in departmental programs that include:

  • DHS implemented the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program to take fingerprints from foreign visitors entering the country. But there is no system to check the fingerprints when the visitors exit.
  • DHS deployed IT infrastructure and fencing at the nation's southwestern border. But the Secure Border Initiative Network electronic surveillance system was canceled after schedule delays and performance problems, and a new strategy is being tested.
  • DHS implemented the Secure Flight program to check airline passenger names against a no-fly list of suspected terrorists, as well as technology to check passengers, baggage and air cargo. But there is no technology to verify the accuracy of air cargo screening data, among other gaps, Dodaro said.
Since the department was founded, GAO has made approximately 1,500 recommendations for its improvement, Dodaro said. DHS officials have implemented about half the recommendations and is dealing with others, he added.

DHS officials issued no objections to the report, though they said it didn't deal with departmental activities. Dodaro agreed that his testimony was based on past GAO and inspector general reports and was not intended to be comprehensive.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who chairs the Senate panel, said Dodaro’s testimony made it clear that DHS had matured enough to have contributed significantly to the nation’s security.

“In the past decade, we have been spared another catastrophic terrorist attack like the one on 9/11, and that’s not just a matter of luck or coincidence,” Lieberman said. “It’s because of what so many people in government did. Ten years ago, no single agency and no single official were designated to lead the federal government’s efforts to prevent terrorism or to adequately marshal the resources of the federal government to respond to catastrophic disasters. Today there is clarity on who is in charge, and that makes a tremendous difference in the security of the country.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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