DHS unification still high risk — 9 years later

Friday - 3/2/2012, 1:57pm EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The patient is getting better, but is still weak. That's what the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management found Thursday during a check-up of the Homeland Security Department's acquisition, human resources and financial management systems.

Nine years after its creation, the department is still struggling to get off the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list. It has fully addressed just two of GAO's 31 recommendations.

"Stove-piped management information systems continue to plague DHS with mismanagement, redundancies and duplication," said subcommittee chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas). "Inefficient use of resources has increased costs within the department and bungled the implementation of security operations."

Improvements made

The department's short history is laden with expensive, acronym-filled projects gone bad. But it's so much better than it was, department officials said.

In the beginning, DHS did not oversee acquisitions by its 22 agencies, the agency's undersecretary for management, Rafael Borras, said during the hearing. But, over the past two years, DHS has reviewed more than 70 programs in a new process to gain control over acquisitions, according to Borras.

"As a result of those reviews, they've been given adjustments, modifications, and in some cases, like [Advanced Spectroscopic Portal], they've been told to cease," he testified. In July, DHS terminated the program to develop radiation-detection monitors after spending $230 million over five years.

Auditors agree that DHS has become stronger.

DHS deserves credit for its first-ever qualified audit opinion, lowering senior-level vacancy rates to 10 percent and updating its strategy to unify management, said David Maurer, GAO's director of homeland security and justice issues.

But DHS "continues to face challenges implementing information-security controls and managing its IT acquisitions," he said. In its financial management, "DHS continues to have internal weaknesses and controls over financial reporting."

The department has a good strategy but hasn't proven it can execute it, he added. "That's been a traditional challenge," he said. "They haven't always executed their plans."

Flat budget constrains management

But with an essentially flat management budget, DHS may not have the resources for the foreseeable future.

"We are attempting to use leveraged technology and our existing resources," said Borras. "It is often a challenge because often times we are pitted against each other. Do we invest in the management backbone of the department or the operations of the department?"

Secretary Janet Napolitano had vowed to protect operations, he said.

Some lawmakers suggested that may be penny wise but pound foolish.

"If you don't have good tools to manage, then that operational budget isn't going to be used as efficiently as possible," said Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.) "But we're losing the opportunity to save money and be more efficient in the long run."

Lawmakers did not say whether they would support more money for management in DHS' budget.

Rep. Thomas Marino (R-Penn.) said officials had to make the most out of their limited resources. He was glad that neither Borras nor the auditors had complained about inheriting a mess, he said.

"You assumed the responsibility and now the ball is in your court," he told the panel. "It's your responsibility now to get the agency to where it should be."

The subcommittee holds another hearing next week on eliminating waste, fraud, abuse and duplication from the department.

GAO recently found that DHS needed better coordination among four overlapping grant programs worth a combined $20.3 billion. In addition, it found that DHS was collecting money from other agencies for facility risk assessments, but never completing the work because of cost overruns, schedule delays, and operational issues with its risk assessment program.

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