DHS acquistion still needs improvement


The Homeland Security Department's vast array of acquisition programs too often cost more than planned, are tardy and sometimes yield results that don't measure up to expectations, lawmakers complained at an oversight hearing Sept. 19.

But even some of the most vocal members of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency acknowledged that DHS has made some progress, while emphasizing that more needs to be done.

DHS Undersecretary for Management Rafael Borras defended his agency's acquisition capabilities and programs, saying DHS has been moving steadily forward with procurement reforms, including installing component agency acquisition executives to coordinate purchasing.

Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Duncan, (R-S.C.), cited a GAO report issued a year ago that found DHS had 21 IT programs estimated to cost $1 billion that were not meeting their cost or schedule goals.

"Out of 77 major acquisition programs (those costing taxpayers more than $300 million), GAO found that only 12 had met most of DHS's criteria for reliable cost estimates in 2011," Duncan said. "Thirty-two programs had none of the required documentation to measure cost, schedule, and performance. The result in 2012 was 42 programs that experienced cost growth, schedule delays or both. From 2008, the cost of 16 of these 42 programs grew from almost $20 billion to over $50 billion in 2011. This an aggregate increase of 166 percent. What business in America could manage its finances that way and survive?"

Michael McCaul, (R-Texas), chairman of the full committee, noted the agency is short on top managers, possibly adding to the acquisition challenges. "Eighteen of the top 40 management positions at DHS are vacant," he said.

It was the bipartisan consensus of the panel, including Duncan and ranking subcommittee member Ron Barber, (D-Ariz.), that despite some measured progress, the department still needs a more comprehensive, coherent procurement plan.

Borras said DHS has made significant progress in some areas.

He noted that in fiscal 2012 more than 72 percent of eligible contracts were awarded competitively, exceeding a government-wide average of 63 percent.

Over the past four years, Borras said, DHS has institutionalized risk-based oversight, evaluation of major spending through portfolio management, and access to reliable data from matured business intelligence to track the progress of programs.

But Borras acknowledged that DHS must contend with a host of legacy systems that can complicate or even defy acquisition reform. He said DHS had waived recent baseline acquisition requirements for some older programs, such as Customs and Border Protections' 20-year-old Automated Cargo Environment, because they predate the requirements. Bringing those programs into the line, he said, is extremely difficult because critical acquisition data for them can't be tracked, and without that data they can't be effectively managed by new requirements.

Duncan and others on the subcommittee said DHS should take private industry and Department of Defense best practices into account in its acquisition reform efforts. Borras responded that his agency has taken some of those practices to heart, but obstacles remain. The Defense Department for instance, has had the resources to implement unified procurement accounts that allow it to track its acquisitions across the agency. "We don't have a unified account structure. We've asked Congress for one," he said.

Reliance on continuing resolutions to fund the government is another stumbling block for DHS acquisition management. "It's difficult to manage three months at a time," said Borras.

 Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, told the panel that DHS acquisition capabilities, like those of all government agencies, are caught in a whirlwind of staff, technology and budget changes.

In January of this year, PSC formed a Leadership Commission to act on findings from its fifth biennial Acquisition Policy Survey. That survey, said Soloway, suggested that after more than a decade of trying to address shortcomings in federal acquisition -- including human capital planning and workforce training and despite  unprecedented spending -- not much has changed.

PSC's Leadership Commission recommended steps that all government agencies, including DHS, could take to improve acquisition skills. Among the recommendations are creating a new technology management career field for government; a restructuring of acquisition and technology workforce development and training around a "corporate university" model, including the use of new online education tools and techniques focused on critical thinking and business skills; and expanding the authority of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy beyond the contracting function it has today -- explicitly charging it with development and management of the entire civilian agency acquisition workforce.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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