The first U.S. Customs and Border Protection unmanned aerial vehicle in 2004.

commentary

(The RAND Blog)

April 22, 2014

Improving DHS Accountability for Acquisitions

The first U.S. Customs and Border Protection unmanned aerial vehicle in 2004.

Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection

by Henry H. Willis, Jeffrey A. Drezner, Andrew R. Morral, Laura Patton

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) turned 11 years old this March. While management at the department progressed in many areas this past decade, there is still plenty of room for growth and improvement—especially in the area of acquisition management.

A review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2011 suggested that more than half of the 77 major acquisitions programs at DHS are over budget or behind schedule. In July 2013, DHS reported that 63 percent of its acquisitions programs had cost growth, and one third of these programs had cost growth over 10 percent. As the House looks to consider legislation that reforms the DHS acquisition process, HR 4228, an important issue to consider comes to the forefront—the need for accountability in the acquisitions process.

This bill has a number of significant provisions that improve accountability, many of which codify the recommendations of a RAND paper published last year, Reducing the Cost and Risk of Major Acquisitions at the Department of Homeland Security. For example:

  • Every major acquisition program will have an approved acquisition program baseline document, and the Acquisition Review Board will hold programs accountable for demonstrating their readiness to progress to new phases.
  • Decisionmaking authority will not be delegated to components until key planning requirements are met.
  • Careful analysis of acquisition cost or schedule breaches will help the department identify root causes for these failures and incorporate lessons to improve future acquisitions.
  • A pilot program to establish a Homeland Security Acquisition Workforce Development Fund could provide mechanisms for more professional development opportunities for DHS acquisition officials.

How will these changes improve DHS management? One example is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan, seven programs with estimated costs from $3 million to $961 million. In March 2014, GAO found that the plan did not include an integrated master schedule in accordance with best practices, nor did it have an independent life cycle cost estimate. But if acquisitions guidelines were statutory, as they would be if this legislation passes, this program never would have gotten as far without a master schedule or an independent cost estimate, potentially saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

Congress' attention can improve the department as it matures its management structure and processes. And the provisions improving accountability included in HR 4228 would be an important step forward on this path.


Henry H. Willis is director of the RAND Homeland Security and Defense Center, Jeffrey A. Drezner is a senior policy researcher, Andrew R. Morral is the associate director of RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment and a senior behavioral scientist, and Laura Patton is a legislative analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.