Under new management: DHS leaders inherit litany of procurement woes.
The past five years has seen a predictable pattern.
Congress passes a law demanding that a perceived security hole be plugged. DHS is given a mandate and a deadline to accomplish the task. More often than not, the implementation of the law requires new technology. The department sets about procuring the technological fixes for the possible security problem, but misses deadlines, and on a few occasions, buys something that just doesn't work.
The Government Accountability Office issues a scathing report. DHS officials are called into congressional hearings to answer questions.
Some $15 billion has been wasted on DHS technology that failed, according to Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
But no one is calling lawmakers in to hearings to ask whether their mandates made sense in the first place, or whether the goals and deadlines laid out were realistic.
As the 111th Congress gets to work, and the Janet Napolitano era at DHS picks up where the Michael Chertoff-led administration left off, critics are hoping that the department hits a smoother stride when it comes to spending taxpayer money on new technologies.
Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project for Government Oversight, said DHS needs to learn "more about buying the things we need, and not just what industry is selling."
There has been a perception that since DHS was new, it had a learning curve on acquisitions, but this grace period has come to an end.
"I think the [department] has had enough time to get up and running," he said.
There is a litany of failures.
The transportation worker identity credential is one of many examples.
Congress charged DHS to develop an identity card for those who need access to U.S. ports. The program missed several deadlines, and after seven years of waste and mismanagement, workers are being enrolled, but there is no technological backbone or readers in place to monitor the cards. If a worker is fired from his job at one port, he could still gain access to another port with the card because readers are not linked to a central database.
Peter Higgins, an identity management consultant, said at a biometric conference last year that the United Kingdom spent seven years studying all facets of a national identity card before passing a law requiring its use.
That kind of methodical planning was not done for TWIC and is almost unheard of in the U.S. Congress. There seems to be little thought on the part of Congress as to how much some of these mandates will cost taxpayers or companies that must comply with the laws.
The 9/11 Commission report said one reason the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center were successful was a lack of imagination on the part of U.S. officials. Since then, there has been no lack of imagination in thinking up possible ways for terrorists to attack the United States.
The nuclear bomb in the shipping container is one frightening scenario. Radiation portal monitors, intended to scan containers for nuclear material, became one of DHS' first notable embarrassments.
Scanners were quickly deployed to U.S. ports, but that plan didn't address the perceived vulnerability. If a nuclear weapon made it that far, it could be detonated inside a harbor with devastating results.
The first generation devices picked up false readings from such sources as kitty litter and bananas and in some tests failed to find harmful radioactive material. Progress on the next-generation advanced radiation portal monitors has not "advanced" much further. Congress required that the secretary of homeland security personally certify that the technology works as advertised before it is deployed. Chertoff was unable to do that before leaving his post.
Despite the dubious quality of the scanners, Congress has demanded that DHS continue studying a rule that would require foreign ports to scan 100 percent of all shipping containers before they depart for U.S. shores.
Who is going to pay to set up, operate and maintain scanners at approximately 700 overseas ports? U.S. taxpayers, foreign governments or the ports? That hasn't been determined, Jayson Ahem, deputy Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said at a Senate hearing last summer.
A shoulder-fired missile aimed at a passenger jet in U.S. airspace is another potential threat. Congress has given millions of dollars to BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman to test military counter-missile technology on passenger jets to see if the devices work. They apparently do. But it could cost the struggling airline industries upwards of $25 billion over the course of 10 years to deploy and maintain the equipment, said a Rand Corp. estimate.
One place where the U.S. government cannot pass along the costs to companies or consumers is the border fence.
In 2004, the public began demanding that the government do something about the millions of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico.
Congress didn't have the political will in an election year to pass real immigration reform, so it tossed the electorate a bone by mandating that 700 miles of border fence be built, although DHS took the initiative to revise that number downwards.
How much per mile the low-tech fence will ultimately cost taxpayers to maintain is unknown. One Congressional Research Service report said, "because border fencing is a relatively new and limited phenomenon along the U.S-Mexican border, there is a dearth of information concerning its overall costs and benefits."
Part of this border security push was a pilot program to show how an elaborate high-tech fence, called Project 28, could provide better situational awareness for the Border Patrol by installing advanced sensors and a communications systems linking cameras to Border Patrol agents in vehicles.
The program saw numerous delays, management turnover at both DHS and the lead contractor Boeing, and has been shrouded in secrecy for two years.
Boeing insists that the system works, and GAO confirmed that some of it is operational, but DHS under the Bush administration wouldn't allow journalists to see for themselves.
How much it will cost per-mile to construct and maintain so-called virtual fences on portions of the southern border is another unknown. Despite paucity of information on potential costs, and the apparent lack of success on Project 28, Congress now wants to take the technology to the northern border--a radically different environment that experts have said will pose a whole new set of challenges.
Many of these failures at DHS can be traced to a dearth of expertise in contract management and the absence of sound acquisition practices, numerous reports have pointed out.
Leslie Phillips, a spokeswoman for Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said a critical weakness in the DHS acquisition process has been the absence of rigorous reviews. Technology programs have proceeded without going through milestone reviews that would identify cost, schedule or performance problems, she said.
"DHS has had such a system on paper, but GAO recently found that the review process was not followed for most major investments," she said.
DHS is revising the process but it remains to be seen how well it will be implemented, she added.
DHS has also struggled with personnel issues since its inception.
One issue has been turnover in senior positions. Chertoff provided stability at the top for four years, but his captains came and went at an alarming rate.
A second problem is the shortage of acquisition personnel at the department. The DHS inspector general, in his annual assessment of the department's management challenges, said Homeland Security has made "modest" progress in addressing its acquisition problems, but high turnover remained an issue.
For example, the department created an acquisition programming and planning branch within the Office of Acquisition Management to serve as a link between procurement personnel and the agencies that generate requirements.
But "OAM has experienced turnover of the senior leadership responsible for developing and communicating a strategic vision," said the November IG report, "Major Management Challenges Facing the Department of Homeland Security."
As of April, DHS had only 61 percent of the required acquisition staff in place, and 38 percent of the contract specialists needed, the report noted.
The department has instituted an acquisition oversight plan but it was too early to assess its overall effectiveness, the IG said.
"DHS has made significant progress in strengthening the acquisition workforce but still has a long way to go," Phillips said.
While DHS since its inception has increased its number of contract specialists by 80 percent, individual DHS procurement offices still report vacancy rates for contract specialists of 12 percent to 35 percent, she noted. Nearly a third of contract specialists at DHS will be eligible to retire by the end of 2012, Phillips added.
This lack of human resources comes at time when DHS contract spending is ballooning. Amey said. Such spending rose from $3.4 billion in fiscal year 2003 to $12.2 billion in 2007.
Furthermore, DHS tends to buy "infant technologies" under emergency circumstances "when competition is by necessity, limited or non-existent," Amey said at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing last year.
The Project of Government Oversight has been critical of DHS' practice of awarding non-competitive contracts.
GAO, in a November report, "A Strategic Approach Is Needed to Better Ensure the Acquisition Workforce Can Meet Mission Needs," said there have been some individual initiatives at DHS to improve the number and quality of the department's contract specialists.
These programs have made some progress, GAO noted, but it said the department "has not developed a comprehensive strategic acquisition workforce plan to direct its future acquisition workforce efforts."
"DHS also lacks sufficient data to fully assess its acquisition workforce needs, including gaps in the numbers of employees needed or the skills of those employees," the report said.
In addition, DHS didn't have clear picture on the number of contractors it has hired to support its acquisition workers or the types of tasks they were performing, the report said.
As for Congress, DHS officials such as Chertoff long complained that oversight was too cumbersome. There are 88 congressional committees and subcommittees that can call DHS witnesses from its 22 legacy agencies to testify. And they all do. All the time. Preparing for these numerous hearings keeps bureaucrats away from other important duties, Chertoff said.
Former Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., a member of the 9/11 Commission, reminded senators at a hearing in December that Congress had enacted laws addressing every recommendation the commission put forth in 2004, except the one that called for lawmakers to reform homeland security oversight.
Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said he would look into implementing such reforms this year.
Jena Baker McNeill, a homeland security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said, "I hope the Obama administration puts the pressure on Congress" to reform the ways the committees do oversight. If he doesn't, "his appointee will be less successful and so [Obama] will be less successful," she said.
She warned against any major reform to DHS during the first year. The first Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, a comprehensive assessment of DHS' progress since 2005, is due in December.
This document should give Congress better guidance on where it should spend taxpayer money.
The new administration should not undertake major changes in policy until the review is complete, she said. Whether the document is delivered on time, or it becomes another missed deadline, is another matter. A staffing shortage looms large in this program as well. There are only four full-time DHS staffers assigned to the project, she noted. The department has requested that Congress provide funds for two more, McNeill said in a background document.
"The QHSR will not be successful if it is late or incomplete because of a lack of staff," she said in the backgrounder.
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|Title Annotation:||ANALYSIS; Department of Homeland Security|
|Comment:||Under new management: DHS leaders inherit litany of procurement woes.(ANALYSIS)(Department of Homeland Security)|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2009|
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