The Department of Homeland Security has policies in place that promote acquisition best practices, but a culture shift is needed to force program managers to actually follow them, a Government Accountability Office official yesterday told the House Homeland Security oversight and management efficiency subcommittee.

Lawmakers brought up several instances of bad acquisition decisions, including uncoordinated H-60 helicopter upgrades between the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as well as a memo that exempted dozens of programs from reporting requirements. GAO’s Acquisition and Sourcing Management Director Michele Mackin said that policy did promote evaluating requirements, ensuring full funding is available before signing a contract, performing thorough cost estimates early on, ensuring technology is mature before fielding it and more.

U.S. Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk
A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk during a search and rescue demonstration. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

“The key is the program managers themselves understanding what’s needed, being structured properly to carry out existing policy,” she said.

Subcommittee ranking member Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) said his concern was “renegade kind of activity, rogue activity at the component level.” In the case of the H-60s, the Coast Guard successfully completed 27 helicopters for a cost of $190 million, while CBP completed just two in four years at a cost of $44.5 million, subcommittee chairman Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said in his opening statement. Duncan cited a GAO report on the helicopter project that called DHS-level oversight “sporadic” and “ineffective.”

Rafael Borras, DHS undersecretary for management, replied that the headquarters staff was too small to oversee all acquisition for all components, but rather components needed to properly oversee their thousands of purchases each year.

New component acquisition executive positions were created, Borras said, to address this very issue.

Aside from oversight issues, Mackin told the subcommittee that “if I had to hone in on one thing the department still faces a big challenge with, it’s that fundamental cost-estimating capability.” She said not enough programs were completing required documentation outlining cost estimates and requirements.

Borras noted that many of the programs that do not complete these forms are legacy programs begun before the documentation was required, he said when Duncan asked about this issue. “Simply, the data does not exist,” Borras replied. “We would be making it up if we tried to recreate” the data and analysis to submit the documentation.

When asked later in the hearing about the department remaining accountable for where its money goes and following best practices, Borras pointed to some appropriation practices that Congress might consider addressing in the future–namely, DHS does not have a procurement budget line the way the Defense Department does. Rather, some of its acquisition is paid for in the operations and management budget line, some from personnel, and so on. Borras went on to say that some components like the Transportation Security Administration relied heavily on multiyear spending, whereas others like CBP did everything in single-year contracts. Any kind of consistency within the department–much the way the Army’s budget layout mirrors the Navy’s and Air Force’s–would go a long way in helping track the money and helping industry get a better idea of what is coming up in the next fiscal year, Borras told the subcommittee.