Does DHS need an acquisition oversight board?

Nearly half of the department's top management positions are vacant, raising concerns about its ability to improve acquisition processes.

org chart in 3D

Nearly half of DHS's top management positions are vacant, raising concerns about its ability to improve its acquisition processes. (Stock image)

The Department of Homeland Security is moving in fits and starts to improve the way it buys goods and services, a problem the chairman of a key congressional committee blames at least in part on management vacancies. The agency says DHS needs to make better choices.

Michele Mackin, GAO's director of acquisition and sourcing management, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency on Sept. 19 that her agency found wide gaps in how DHS applies its acquisition program baseline documentation, which outlines expected costs, schedules and the capabilities to be delivered to the end user. (Read FCW's earlier coverage.)

Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said part of the problem is not enough people to do the work. "Eighteen of the top 40 management positions at DHS are vacant," he noted.

DHS's knowledge-based approach to procurement, Mackin told the subcommittee, tends to mitigate risks such as cost growth and slipped schedules using critical cost and performance milestones. Other practices, however, are applied erratically.

In September 2012, GAO found that only four of 66 DHS programs had all of the required documents approved in accordance with DHS policy. Although the department has moved to improve its acquisition management, Mackin said GAO continues to find problems.

She said DHS's July 2013 status assessment showed that, as of the end of fiscal year 2012, many major programs still face cost and schedule shortfalls.

Mackin said GAO also noted that DHS tends to make its major spending decisions on a "program-by-program" basis, or on a "DHS component-by-DHS component" basis, rather than establishing departmental priorities across the board.

Mackin said GAO's work at the Defense Department found that approach can thwart efforts to achieve a balanced mix of programs that are affordable and feasible and that provide the greatest return on investment.

To address the issue, GAO recommended a high-level oversight board to "identify potential trade-offs among DHS's component agencies." DHS's Integrated Investment Life Cycle Model is intended to improve portfolio management by ensuring that mission needs drive spending decisions, she said.

GAO, Mackin noted, has recommended such an oversight body for several years. "While the IILCM, as envisioned, could improve DHS management decisions by better linking missions to acquisition outcomes, our ongoing work indicates that its full implementation may be several years away," she said.

Acquisition management is not the only area in which GAO noted a problem at Homeland Security this week.

On Sept. 17, GAO issued a report that echoed McCaul's concerns about staffing. The study said a key DHS cyber security office was having problems finding and retaining personnel. According to the study, as of June the agency's National Protection and Programs Directorate's Office of Cybersecurity and Communications had a 22 percent vacancy rate.

"NPPD has recently struggled with filling some key [mission critical occupations], such as those for [Federal Protective Service] officers and cybersecurity personnel," said the study. FPS officers, it explained, are sworn law enforcement officers and trained security experts who provide security assessments, inspections and oversight for contract guards, and respond to crimes in progress.

GAO said that since cybersecurity personnel are spread throughout a number of different occupational series within NPPD, generally concentrated in IT, it had no way to specifically count cybersecurity hires and losses.

The study attributed the losses to slow op secret/sensitive compartmented information clearances; low pay in comparison with that of private sector positions; and lack of clearly defined skill sets or a unique occupational series for the positions.

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