By Calvin Biesecker

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has made some progress in how it organizes and manages acquisition activities, but still lacks accountability for how it spends and oversees procurement dollars, an official with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said yesterday.

"A common theme in our work on acquisition management is DHS’s struggle to provide adequate support for its mission components and resources for department wide oversight," Norman Rabkin, managing director for Homeland Security and Justice issues at GAO, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management. "DHS has not yet accomplished its goal of integrating the acquisition function across the department. For example, the structure of DHS’s acquisition function creates ambiguity about who is accountable for acquisition decisions because it depends on a system of dual accountability and cooperation and collaboration between the Chief Procurement Officer (CPO) and the component heads."

One reason acquisition oversight has suffered has been due to the lack of the right skillsets, along with the appropriate capacity of personnel, that make up the procurement office at DHS, Elaine Duke, deputy under secretary for management and the former CPO at DHS, said at yesterday’s hearing.

Duke said there are 14 career fields that make up an acquisition program, yet the DHS procurement office had only procurement people when it was stood up. Now, she said, the office has program managers, which are the most essential personnel for any acquisition program, along with cost estimators, testers and evaluators, and logisticians. Cost estimators are critical for helping DHS determine the long-term sustainability of program costs, she said.

"So now we have the skillsets in CPO, not enough, but a few of the right skillsets and we can look at a program," Duke said. She added that now, "We can go in early in a program, actually not just look at the end product, which is the contract, but look at the program documentation, the requirements documents, the mission needs statement, the cost estimate, so we can actually do a program review, not a procurement review, because a procurement review is at the end and all you can really do is band-aid the problem at that point; stop the bleeding."

DHS had about 400 procurement officers in 2004 and now is up to about 1,000, Duke said. The department is authorized to have 1,250 procurement personnel and is working toward that goal before reassessing its needs, she added.

While DHS is working to meet its personnel requirements for acquisition, she said competition in the Washington, D.C., area for qualified acquisition officials with the right skillsets is "intense."

The issue of DHS oversight of its component agencies’ acquisition activities has become an increasing focus of the House Homeland Security Committee’s focus the past year as several high profile programs have struggled to meet schedule and development goals. These include the electronic fence component of the Border Patrol’s Secure Border Initiative, the Coast Guard’s Deepwater program, and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office’s next-generation radiation portal monitor, known as the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal.

Duke said that the DHS acquisition directorate is in the process of an "aggressive…re-engineering effort," which includes replacing the existing management directive for investment review process and "establishing revised investment and acquisition decision procedures, as well as processes for acquisition program baselining, periodic reporting, acquisition of services, and other initiatives as they are identified."