DHS edging off GAO's high risk list

DHS seal

The congressional watchdogs who track the management and acquisition issues that have consistently put the Department of Homeland Security on a federal "high risk" list said the agency is well along in its fight to jump off of it.

"Based on our criteria, DHS is three-fifths of the way there" in implementing reforms that would remove it from the Government Accountability Office's High Risk List, GAO's Rebecca Gambler told a Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee panel on March 16.

"DHS has put the building blocks in place to stay off the high risk list, but they need to show sustainable progress," Gambler, who directs GAO's oversight of DHS and the Justice Department, said later.

"We've seen some real progress" with acquisition practices at the agency, Michele Mackin, GAO's director for acquisition and sourcing management, told senators. However, she said the DHS "isn't there yet" with certain program management and cost estimation challenges, and needs some sustained oversight and direction to keep the improvements on track.

The committee plans to take up legislation to further bolster DHS management and acquisition reform efforts. The House passed the DHS Headquarters Reform and Improvement Act  to codify some of the management practices established under DHS "unity of effort" program last October.

The Senate bills haven't been introduced yet, a Senate aide told FCW, but they are expected after the Easter recess .

The measures would provide necessary authority for key personnel and mechanisms within DHS to effectively manage major acquisition programs; reinforce key acquisition management practices, such as establish cost, schedule, and capability parameters; and include requirements to better identify and address poorly performing acquisition programs.

"Last week, Secretary [Jeh] Johnson told this committee that he would like to see his management initiatives codified in law so that the improvements he and his team are making can be sustained and made even stronger by the next administration," said ranking member Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). "That makes a lot of sense to me."

Carper noted that the planned bills would bring new accountability to DHS. A management bill, he said, provides top DHS officials additional authority to oversee the activities of components agencies. It would also require DHS to report to GAO every six months on the progress being made to get off the High Risk List.

The acquisition bill, Carper said, would for the first time designate DHS' undersecretary for management as the single accountable leader for all DHS acquisition programs. It would also give the under secretary the statutory authority to stop, modify or cancel acquisition programs that are struggling or no longer viable.

GAO's Gambler and DHS Inspector General John Roth agreed the legislation was needed to insure the gains the agency has made under its "Unity of Effort" initiative will continue, especially with the uncertainties that changes in administration can bring.

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 or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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