While Homeland Security Department officials have improved the way they buy technology and manage money and staff, DHS continues to confront major management problems and is unlikely to be removed from the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list anytime soon.
"Unfortunately, progress has been slower than many expected and than any of us would like to see," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's panel on oversight of government management.
At a hearing Thursday he acknowledged improvements in leadership and management, but doubted they would be enough to warrant taking the department off GAO's list of agencies most at risk for waste, fraud and abuse.
"Many high-cost projects have been initiated with too little analysis, planning and follow-up, costing millions of taxpayer dollars and impacting the agency's mission," he said, singling out for specific criticism the Secure Border Initiative's electronic fence, known as SBInet. The program has experienced multiple setbacks, including cost overruns and schedule delays, and has failed to perform as expected.
In addition, Homeland Security has struggled to integrate the finance and accounting systems of its component agencies since it was formed in 2003.
Cathleen Berrick, GAO's managing director for homeland security and justice issues, said the management shortfalls have had a significant effect on missions. A number of major programs the department has tried to deploy, including SBInet and the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program known as US VISIT, have failed to meet performance and cost and schedule expectations.
"They were either delayed or never deployed to the field, so there's a direct correlation between how the department is managed and how successful [it is] in implementing the mission," Berrick said.
Deputy Secretary Jane Hall Lute said DHS has undertaken a number of significant actions to improve management across the department. Lute earlier this year initiated a strategic management approach focused on enhancing the people, structures and processes necessary to meet mission goals.
That initiative was centered on improving the acquisition process, financial management and personnel reform -- making sure the right people were in the right positions with a proper balance between civil servants and contract employees.
To that end, DHS has aligned account structures to better compare personnel costs and other factors across the department. "It's hard to talk about an integrated department if we don't count personnel or acquisition and investment or [operation and maintenance] costs in the same way," Lute said.
"In addition, we have reevaluated every single performance measure guiding the department. We've looked at all 180-odd performance measures, and we have recast them in ways that are plain language indicators of what the value proposition is in the department for money that's being allocated. We think this will be a much more sensible approach to performance metrics," Lute said.
Berrick said the new and revised performance measures have been a key improvement.
"I do think DHS is laying the groundwork [for improving management]. They do have good plans in place in many of these areas," Berrick said. The key will be implementing those plans, she added.