The Buzz

One Flew Over Homeland Security's Nest

Well, it's official: The Homeland Security Department really is driving employees to the insane asylum. Or at least it will be, starting in 2010, when offices scattered all around Washington begin to be consolidated on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital in an abandoned mental institution in the southeast quadrant of the city.

The search for a new headquarters site was set off by a 2005 review that showed DHS staffers were being driven nuts and wasting time sitting in the capital's notorious traffic en route to meetings. "Without federal construction at St. Elizabeths, DHS will continue to be housed in more than 50 locations in the National Capital Region. If the project is not funded, the cost to continue housing DHS in leased space is approximately $5.1 billion," Paul Schneider, DHS undersecretary for management, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Investigations and Oversight on March 1.

St. Elizabeths is a National Historic Landmark, with buildings and grounds dating back to 1855 when it was known as the Government Hospital for the Insane. It passed from federal control to the District of Columbia in 1987. It specializes in inpatient care for people whose mental illness symptoms are so severe or intense they need the security and structure of a hospital. St. Elizabeths also provides mental health evaluations and recommendations to courts as to a person's competence to stand trial.

Homeland Security will move into the vacant west campus of the hospital with 4.5 million square feet of office space. The east campus will continue to serve as a mental health facility.

Huge Projects, Harsh Lessons

A spate of problems recently has cropped up with huge overarching contracts meant to have contractors not just accomplish work, but run programs and manage other companies. The Coast Guard's Deepwater, Homeland Security Department's SBInet, the Army's Future Combat Systems and others have come under fire for management deficiencies.

It's an opportune moment to take some lessons from one of America's largest-ever experiments in letting companies run what used to be a federal endeavor: helping other countries recover from war. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction takes agencies to school in a March report, "Iraq Reconstruction: Lessons in Program and Project Management."

The excruciating details led the SIGIR to recommend legislation to improve cooperation among the Defense and State departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development, more funding for State's reconstruction office and, tellingly, involvement from the outset of such huge projects by "a broad spectrum of individuals with familiarity about the affected nation (from policy-makers to contractors to international experts)." In other words, next time around, listen to people who know what they're talking about. Perhaps doing so might have prevented the Coalition Provisional Authority program management office from being "underresourced from its inception" in 2003 for the job of overseeing $18.4 billion to be spent on 2,300 reconstruction projects.

Among other problems:

  • The PMO plan-hire seven program management firms to run the overall effort and 12 design-build construction companies to do the work-failed to clarify roles and responsibilities for management contractors.
  • A year after the PMO was created, it still had only 50 of the 100 staffers its director had requested.
  • The PMO had no information management system to track projects; data storage was so limited that managers couldn't maintain electronic files; offices were connected only by e-mail.
  • Federal agencies fought over the PMO's decision to focus on large infrastructure projects rather than those with more immediate and visible results.
  • Contracting officers had no place to send equipment, so they created an address, "Baghdad Warehouse," and stored newly arrived materiel wherever they could-guns and ammunition, for example, wound up in the basement of a courthouse.
  • In three years, 81 people passed through the eight slots for certified government contracting officer representatives supervising five logistics contracts.
  • When companies arrived in Iraq, some found contracting officers had not yet received copies of their contracts. Although they weren't immediately put to work, contractors incurred costs and began charging the government-five of the 12 design-build firms charged $62 million in administrative costs, $27 million for mobilization, but only did $27 million worth of direct project work between March and November 2004.
  • When they arrived at work sites, unforeseen problems caused increased costs and delays. For example, poor site conditions slowed construction of health care centers, port of Umm Qasr dredging couldn't begin until piers were repaired and land ownership disputes prevented court buildings construction.
  • As security deteriorated, protection costs grew and work was delayed. One project suffered three evacuations, a hijacking and ransacking of two of its offices. Others held numerous evacuations and shortened their workdays to allow daylight travel.
  • In May 2004, reconstruction authority passed from the CPA to the State Department's Iraq Embassy, causing another ripple of delays and confusion.
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