Trouble tracking DHS acquisition

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(Image: Bioraven / Shutterstock)

The Department of Homeland Security remains beset by bumpy execution of its acquisition policies, resulting in delays and billions in cost overruns, according to a new study by the Government Accountability Office.

In a report released in conjunction with an April 22 House Homeland Security Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee hearing on DHS acquisition, GAO said only two of 22 major DHS programs worth $300 million or were on track for scheduling and costs.

The reviewed programs covered everything from Coast Guard ships to Transportation Security Administration baggage screening systems to Federal Emergency Management Agency logistics management systems, according to the report's author, Michele Mackin, director of acquisition and sourcing management at GAO.

Mackin added that 14 of the 22 programs had schedule slips, while seven of those also saw costs balloon by an estimated $9.7 billion.

In a podcast discussing the report on the GAO's website, Mackin said lack of project baselines were a major stumbling block for DHS. Six of the 22 programs, she said, didn't have an approved baseline for schedules or costs. The lack of initial baselines for big programs "has been a longstanding problem at the department." Without baselines to compare, she said, it was hard to assess whether programs were on track.

At the hearing, Mackin said that although DHS's acquisition policies are "generally sound," execution of those policies has put the department on GAO’s high-risk list and led to numerous studies on how to improve.

In the podcast, she said there are still three critical factors plaguing DHS acquisition; lack of adequate staffing for program offices that do the day-to-day project execution; a mismatch of budgeting from what the agency expects to receive, versus what it actually receives; and mid-course or late changes to program requirements that can lead to slipped schedules and higher costs.

During the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa.) noted that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has implemented improvements, but the effects of those changes aren't completely clear yet. Although the department "has created several new mechanisms to discuss key decisions, it remains to be seen if these efforts are leading to improved outcomes and better safeguarding taxpayer dollars," Perry said.

Chip Fulghum, DHS acting deputy undersecretary for management, told the subcommittee that in the last 12 months the department has increased the scrutiny of its acquisition oversight by convening 24 Acquisition Review Boards, and he has personally chaired 13 of them. The ARBs, he said, have taken action to cancel or pause several poor-performing or higher-risk programs that were not achieving pre-established cost, schedule and performance goals.

Fulghum also pointed to other acquisition process improvements acknowledged by GAO in recent months as evidence that DHS is making progress in reforming its acquisition system. Among the broader efforts, he said, are outreach programs with industry to discuss challenges and how to address them.

"I have asked the senior procurement executive, chief information officer, and executive director for [Program Accountability and Risk Management] to implement several initiatives by the end of FY 2015," he said. "The first of these initiatives is engagement with industry councils. This engagement will facilitate honest conversations about the Department’s vision and strategic plan, to include mission-specific priorities, as well as challenges and gaps in current capabilities."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

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 [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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