Homeland Security – Major Management Challenges

History will tell us that any report that is headed “Major Management and Performance Challenges Facing the …” tends to be a good read.

A recent report from the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security in the United States doesnt disappoint.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is a cabinet department of the United States federal government, first proposed by the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century in January 2001 and expedited in response to the September 11 attacks.  

As the report notes:

DHS’ mission to protect the Nation from domestic and international threats and respond to natural and manmade disasters is further challenged by the unpredictable nature of these hazards.

And it is this context that one would expect that the DHS control environment would be one of robustness, inbuilt (and necessary) redundancies and strong management frameworks.

Alas the report would suggest otherwise.

We have identified major challenges that affect both the Department as a whole, as well as individual components. Some of the most persistent challenges arise from the effort to combine and coordinate diverse legacy agencies into a single, cohesive organization capable of fulfilling a broad, vital, and complex mission.

The report is a comprehensive survey of what you would call – if one was being kind – significant opportunities for improvement.

DHS has poor cost, stock and information management processes:

Our FY 2014 audits identified several programs with weak department- level oversight. These audits showed the Department did not adequately manage common programs resulting in potentially excessive costs, inaccurate inventories, and unreliable data.

In a world with an increased sensitivity to issues such as Ebola we read with alarm:

In our audit of DHS’ preparedness for pandemics, we found DHS did not effectively manage its stockpile of pandemic equipment and antiviral medications. In addition, we identified inaccurate inventories of pandemic preparedness supplies at component offices. As a result, the Department has no assurance it has sufficient equipment and medical countermeasures to respond to a pandemic.

As a longer term systemic issue it is of equal concern that:

In September 2014, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on DHS’ coordination of vulnerability assessments, or assessments that can identify factors that render an asset or facility susceptible to threats and hazards. DHS has not issued guidance to the DHS offices or components involved in these assessments to ensure that the areas that DHS deems most important are captured in their assessment tools and methods. As a result, DHS was not positioned to integrate assessments to determine priorities between and across critical infrastructure sectors.

From a procurement perspective:

With the third largest acquisition budget in the Federal Government, DHS acquires more than $18 billion worth of goods and services annually. Components did not always follow departmental acquisition guidance, which led to acquisition cost overruns, missed schedules, and lackluster acquisition performance. All of these have an effect on budget, security, and efficient use of resources. Even though DHS has initiated efforts to improve its acquisition processes, DHS leadership continues to authorize and invest in major acquisition programs that lack the foundational documents and management controls necessary to manage risks and measure performance.

And things didnt improve when taxpayers were handing over their sensitive information:

DHS also did not ensure it had uniform procedures to implement privacy policies and controls to integrate privacy protections for each process, program, and information system that affects sensitive personally identifiable information and protected information. DHS did not take appropriate steps to identify and mitigate physical risks to the security and confidentiality of records.

One of the high profile controls that DHS shows was also seem wanted:

Through covert testing at domestic airports, we sought to determine whether transportation security officers were following policies and procedures to prevent threat items from being placed onto commercial aircraft and to determine the effectiveness of checked baggage screening technology. Specific results are classified, but we identified human- and technology-based failures that led to vulnerabilities in screening. In addition, we identified weaknesses in assessing the functionality of checked baggage screening equipment.

This is an extraordinary recital of what it feels like when a control environment is failing.

Perhaps in the five years since its establishment in 2001, grace could have been given as the department learnt how to operate together.  We are now close on 13 years since its foundation.

Such control issues should have been long since addressed.

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